MARTINEZ, Calif. (KRON) — Toxic dust fell over Martinez while families were at home celebrating Thanksgiving, and Contra Costa County health officials want an oil refinery to face consequences for failing to sound the alarm.
On Wednesday, Contra Costa Health requested that the District Attorney consider taking legal action against the Martinez Refining Company for allegedly failing to alert the county after it released more than 20 tons of metal-laden dust into the community.
The accidental release of a “spent catalyst” from the refinery began around 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 24 and continued into the early hours of Nov. 25, showering the surrounding community in dust, health officials said.
Martinez residents said they found white powder and ash on their cars and sidewalks.
Samples of the dust showed it contained elevated levels of aluminum and other metals, which could have potentially caused respiratory symptoms in people who breathed it. “Prolonged exposure to these metals can lead to health concerns,” CCH officials wrote.
The refinery did not report the release via the county’s Community Warning System, nor directly to CCH, as required by the county’s notification policy. CCH learned about the release from local news media reports two full days after the accident.
Health officials were never able to alert residents about the hazard at the time of the accident because MRC failed to follow the policy, according to CCH.
“It is unacceptable that the refinery did not notify County Health Services of their chemical release and that the county learned about it through the media,” said John Gioia, chair of the County Board of Supervisors. “The refinery delayed an emergency response that could have reduced harm to the surrounding community,” Gioia said.
“We rely on our industrial businesses to follow the rules and be good neighbors. When an industrial facility doesn’t follow the rules and possibly puts its neighbors in harm’s way, as in this case, then they must be held accountable,” supervisor Federal Glover said.
“Contra Costa Health has classified this event as a major chemical accident or release,” said Nicole Heath with the Contra Costa County Health Department.
The District Attorney’s Office has one month to decide whether to accept the enforcement case referral.
Martinez residents dealt with another concerning incident on Dec. 22 during a flareup. According to the Martinez Refining Company, a wild raccoon broke into a refinery substation and caused a power interruption that resulted in flaring. The flaring lasted for at least seven minutes.
Another flaring incident on December 9 sent a plume of black smoke into the sky above the city. A representative with the refinery said a “critical piece of equipment unexpectedly tripped offline.”