MARTINEZ, Calif. (KRON) — The white, powdery substance released in Martinez late last week was the result of an incident at a refinery nearby, according to officials with the Contra Costa Health Services.

Some residents in Martinez found a mysterious white powder on their cars and sidewalks Thursday and Friday, and today the CCH shared more information.

The white powder substance is the result of a malfunction at a local gasoline refinement plant, Martinez Refining Company, located at 3485 Pacheco Blvd. in east Martinez. The company is owned by a larger corporation, PBF Energy.

As for what exactly is in the powder itself, the substance has been tested by the CCH, and it shows that the material contains a mixture of heavy metals including aluminum, barium, chromium, nickel, bannadium, cobalt, lead, copper and zinc. Matt Kaufmann, the Deputy Director of Hazardous Materials for CCH, says these metals are part of the refining process.

Kaufmann also shared a timeline of the “plant upset” at the refinery:

  • Monday, Nov. 21 – a plant upset at Martinez Refining Company began to cause flaring, which continued through Friday morning.
  • Thursday, Nov. 24 9:30 p.m. – release of “spent catalyst” began and continued thru Friday morning.
  • Saturday, Nov. 26 morning – DPH became aware of the incident because of social media posts.

Kaufmann says the Martinez Refining Company did not inform CCH of the incident, and so the community warning system was not activated for the incident. “This lack of notice prevented the the health department from collecting samples during the release, and notifying the public of protective actions,” Kaufmann said.

CCH says county policy states that a refinery should notify the county health department of the release of suspected hazardous material within 15 minutes of an incident. This allows people to take the necessary precautions to protect themselves.

Martinez Refining Company has not yet offered the CCH a reason for why the notification did not occur. CCH says it would have “likely used the community warning system” to help residents avoid contact with the dust.

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The Martinez Refining Company has submitted a 72-hour report which summarizes what they know on the incident thus far. However, the CCH says the report doesn’t provide enough info to determine exactly what happened.

Dr. Ori Tzvieli, the Health Officer for CCH, discussed the health impacts of this incident, and he says the county does not believe there is a health risk. If a person happened to breathe the powder in during initial release of the powder, it could have caused symptoms such as coughing, sore throat, eye irritation or immune suppression, Dr. Tzvieli said. Anyone who experienced these symptoms should reach out to their doctor.

Exposure to these substances, even for short periods like this one, are the cause of some concern, so CCH says it will be working with the Martinez Refining Company to make sure an exposure like this does not happen again.

CCH did not see an unusual level of complaints, and officials say the complaints at the time of the incident were even below average. “We haven’t seen evidence of widespread health effects,” CCH officials said, but people did complain to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District about the white powder.

Martinez is set to see rain within the next 24 hours, so CCH anticipates most of the powder will be rinsed away during the rainfall. If cleanup is necessary, CCH recommends using a slow flowing hose to rinse the powder away. Gloves and N-95 masks are also recommended if you are coming into direct contact during cleanup, according to Dr. Tzvieli.

As for what happens next, the CCH is continuing to investigate, and they say they will hold Martinez Refining Company responsible for whatever they find. Martinez Refining Company could face penalties for the incident, in particular for not notifying the county of the suspected release.

According to CCH officials, the county will prepare an investigative report which will be forwarded along to the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office. The DA’s office will then determine whether to prosecute. If the DA decides not to move forward with prosecution, CCH can still take other measures to handle any potential violations.

KRON4 reached out to Martinez Refining Company for comment, and the company shared the following:

“This incident is still under internal and external investigations, and we appreciate the cooperation and responses of the Contra Costa County Health Services and Bay Area Air Quality Management District. MRC will continue working with the agencies on this matter. Again, we apologize for the inconvenience this incident has posed to our neighbors and community.”