New details in federal investigation into Martinez’s ‘toxic shower’ event

[Note from BenIndy contributor Nathalie Christian: This article covers the FBI/EPA joint investigation of the Martinez Refining Company’s ‘toxic dustfall’ in much more detail than what I posted yesterday. Remember to save the date of June 13 for Valero’s Benicia Refinery CAP’s community presentation on its own incident response and air monitoring programs. Valero does not operate the Martinez refinery that released the toxic materials last year, but its incident response efforts at our own Benicia refinery should concern all Benicians. The flyer for that event is at the end of this post.]

FBI, EPA investigating hazardous chemical release from Martinez refinery

A picture of Martinez Refining Company in the distance with residences in the foreground.
The Martinez Refining Company (in the background) is very close to residential neighborhoods (in the foreground), much like Valero’s Benicia Refinery is close to Benicia’s own residential neighborhoods (and schools). | Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group

Mercury News, by Katie Lauer for the Bay Area News Group, May 28, 2023

MARTINEZ — Federal agents have started asking questions about the 24 tons of toxic, dusty residue that showered down on neighbors living near the Martinez Refining Company last Thanksgiving.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice started assisting the Environmental Protection Agency investigate the November 2022 incident this week, going door-to-door to survey residents about their experience, according to news reports and a news release from a community spokesperson.

For now, the tens of thousands of residents who found a fine, white substance blanketing their cars, porches and plants over the holiday continue to wait for answers about if – or to what extent – the community was poisoned more than six months ago.

Shortly after the incident, the company said on Facebook that the ashy grit was a “non-toxic”, “non-hazardous” and “naturally occurring” catalyst dust expelled from its 860-acre facility, which is located at 3485 Pacheco Blvd. on the city’s northern industrial corridor.

But within a few days, the Contra Costa County Health Department alerted residents that the dust — a byproduct of the gasoline, diesel and jet fuel refined at the facility — actually contained aluminum, barium, chromium and other hazardous metals. Those chemicals are linked to nausea, vomiting, respiratory issues, immune system dysfunction, cancer and even death.

County officials said that the company failed to immediately inform them of the chemical release, which is required by law.

Heidi Taylor, who moved to Martinez with her family in August, said her son and husband first noticed the spent catalyst the day after Thanksgiving, finding an antique dresser that was left outside covered with a chalky, white dust, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Initially thinking the substance was soot from wood burning, Taylor’s son wiped his hand across the top of the furniture, which sent dust into the air.

“That memory is just seared into my brain and it freaks me out,” Taylor told the Los Angeles Times, adding that she also ate homemade applesauce and peppermint tea from the family’s backyard trees and garden. “I understand that may sound a little crazy … but people don’t understand what it’s like to live in this constant fear and anxiety of not knowing what these toxic metals will do.”

The Martinez Refining Company, owned by PBF Energy, is aware of the federal inquiry, but declined to comment on details of the ongoing investigations, according to spokesperson Brandon Matson.

We are cooperating with all relevant agencies, including with respect to any ongoing investigations related to the incident,” Matson said in a statement. “We would, however, like to take this opportunity to once again apologize to the Martinez community for the spent catalyst release on November 24, 2022. We have thoroughly investigated the incident to identify appropriate corrective actions and we are committed to implementing them.”

Representatives from both the FBI in San Francisco and EPA Region 9 confirmed that the joint investigation is ongoing, but declined to comment further.

Soil samples collected the first week of May are expected to yield more specific results about the town’s contamination by early June, county health officials said.

Toxicologists with TRC, a Concord-based environmental consulting firm, are analyzing samples taken from 14 different sites neighboring the refinery — evaluating the extent of contamination residents were exposed to through skin contact, inhalation or consumption of food grown in the ground, according to Laura Trozzolo, a senior human health risk assessor with TRC.

She said the soil sample locations — reaching as far as Benicia and El Sobrante — were chosen based on a map of where the plume of particles likely landed, using models from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, residents’ observations and wind simulations.

Trozzolo said that neither the five-month delay in data collection — due to the county’s lengthy contracting procedures — nor the recent historic storms that drenched the area should negatively impact lab findings.

Meanwhile, the Contra Costa District Attorney’s office opened a case in January on the refinery’s failure to notify hazmat officials about the hazardous release, according to Matthew Kaufmann, the county’s deputy health director.

In the meantime, the county is still recommending that residents impacted by the toxic dust avoid eating any produce planted in the soil. However, gardeners are also encouraged to plant new seeds, in the event that soil samples don’t uncover any hazards.

Valero CAP Announcemnet
Click image to enlarge.



Save the date! Valero’s Community Advisory Panel invites Benicia residents to learn about air monitoring and incident response at Benicia Refinery




And don’t forget to check out the amazing ISO Archives on BenIndy

FBI joins ‘toxic fallout’ investigation of Bay Area refinery

[Note from BenIndy contributor Nathalie Christian: Benicia residents should be aware that the plume that carried the toxic dust from the refinery in Martinez reached as far as Benicia, with toxicologists collecting samples from our own city to pursue their investigation. I nearly missed this news but for someone taking the time to send it to me (thanks!). This my my open invitation for you to send me tips and heads-ups on news impacting Benicia at It is essential our community stay informed, and I need your help. Remember to save the date of June 13 to attend Valero’s Benicia Refinery CAP’s community presentation on its incident response. The flyer for that event is at the end of this post.]

FBI investigating hazardous fallout from Bay Area refinery

A picture of Martinez Refining Company in the distance with residences in the foreground.
People living near the Martinez Refining Company in Martinez are under a health advisory from the Contra Costa Health Services to not eat food grown in their gardens until they have tested or replaced their soil due to a refinery accidentally release of dust containing heavy metals in November | Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group

LA Times, by Tony Briscoe, May 26, 2023

FBI agents and EPA Region 9 staff have been going door to door in the city of Martinez, asking residents for details about the release of metal-laden dust from the Martinez Refining Co. over the Thanksgiving holiday last year.

An FBI spokespeson confirmed Friday that the agents were canvassing residents as part of a joint investigation, but referred all other inquiries to the EPA.

“EPA is communicating with local, state, and federal agencies and does not comment on any ongoing investigations,” said Michael Brogan, a spokesperson for EPA Region 9.

Martinez Refining, located on an 880-acre industrial complex on the northern edge of the city, emitted as much as 24 tons of so-called spent catalyst, a mix of chemicals used to break down crude oil into finished petroleum products like gasoline, according to the local air district.

The fallout left cars, homes and at least one school blanketed in a white powdery substance. Tests determined that the residue contained metals such as aluminum, barium, chromium, nickel, vanadium and zinc.

Martinez Refining did not immediately inform county officials about the chemical release as required by law, according to Contra Costa County Health Services. The local air district and county officials learned after receiving complaints from residents.

The health department later advised community members not to eat foods grown in the soil if their homes were dusted by the spent catalyst.

The entry of federal investigators has stunned Martinez residents who are still awaiting the county-ordered soil testing and investigations by other local agencies.“We kind of expected quiet investigations in the background. But to have the FBI come out, that was never on our radar at all,” said one Martinez resident who spoke with federal investigators and asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

The county health department has referred two violations to the Contra Costa County district attorney’s office — one for failure to notify the proper authorities of a hazardous material release and one for illicit discharges into the county stormwater system. Both referrals remain under review.

Valero CAP Announcemnet
Click image to enlarge.



Save the date! Valero’s Community Advisory Panel invites Benicia residents to learn about air monitoring and incident response at Benicia Refinery




And don’t forget to check out the amazing ISO Archives on BenIndy

‘Is Benicia a Sundown Town?’

Sheri Leigh continues her reporting on ‘La Migra’

Sheri Leigh
Sheri Leigh

I first heard about the particular incident involving this young person when listening to a recording from a Town Hall–style meeting that occurred on April 28, 2022. The pain in the voice of the then 16-year-old clearly came through even on the less-than-ideal recording as he told his story to those in attendance. He completely captured my heart and my attention. I was put in contact with his mother who spoke to her son about my article, and they both agreed to meet with me at Rragg’s Coffee Shop one quiet afternoon. They were waiting for me at a corner table when I walked in. The young man who told his story to me was a year older in body than when the event took place, but decades older in spirit. His voice and mannerisms were that of a mature, intelligent, gentle young man who had experienced trauma but was determined to share his story so that others in the future would not have to endure the same treatment. His mother was clearly supportive of her son, and was trying hard to balance her protective instincts with her need to let her son feel the pain of speaking his truth. Although tears came to her eyes while he told his story she fought through them and gave him space. Later, on the phone with me, she and I both cried. – Sheri Leigh

‘Is Benicia a Sundown Town?’

In 2022, Benicia organizers put on a Town Hall–style meeting to raise awareness about the danger and trauma that can come from ignoring or downplaying the ‘Game’s’ violent, racist framing. | KTVU Fox 2.

As experienced by a 17-year-old Latino and Indigenous male, who is also 5-year Benicia resident

I started school here in Benicia in 2017, but it wasn’t until last year that I woke up to the danger that is inflicted on young people who are labeled as different because of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation or gender identification. 

My awakening happened on a Friday evening on the eve of spring break, 2022. My friend, a young female of color, and I were walking around on First Street. We could sense an excited tension in town. There seemed to be more traffic and more noise, which we chalked up to young people in anticipation of vacation.

Escalation from game to assault

We were crossing First Street after getting ice cream when the occupants of a large white truck drew our attention by loudly revving the engine. As we looked towards them, one of the passengers, a white male, put his head out of the window and started making barking sounds and yelling something unintelligible at my friend. This angered me, and I told him to “screw off.”

The assault described here took place on Benicia’s First Street, near restaurants and businesses usually considered safe spaces for teens and youth. | Image from 2022 KTVU broadcast.

No sooner were the words out of my mouth when a passenger said to the others in the car, “Let’s get them!” The truck made a sudden and aggressive turn so that they were driving parallel with us. They started shouting derogatory things, calling me a “f—t” and my friend the n-word.

Now nervous, we tried to ignore them and walk away as fast as possible. As we were quickening our pace, we heard metallic clicking noises from the truck and a gun was fired at us. I was hit in the face near my eye and across my hand, and my friend was hit on her torso. We didn’t know at the time that they were shooting ice from a gel pellet gun. The pain was very real. The gun looked real to us, too. The truck continued up First Street, but we could hear our original assailant yelling, “Hurry up and turn around, so we can get those m—f—s.” 

We didn’t wait for their return. Instead, we ran down a side street and into a fenced yard of a private home where we hid in some bushes behind the homeowner’s vehicle. We were both injured and terrified. For about 45 minutes, we could hear the truck going up and down the street looking for us. When they finally gave up, we cautiously made our way to a commercial building and found an elevator, where we hid again for over an hour while we called our families for help. Because we were in shock, we had a difficult time providing our specific location, but eventually my sister found us. She took us to my mom and the police who were waiting by the Benicia Senior Center. 

Mixed police response

The police took our statements and examined our lacerations. We were badly bruised and bleeding. My traumatized memory of being interviewed that evening is vague, but I do remember feeling bothered that the officers had no sense of urgency or seemed to exhibit any compassion for what we experienced.

I learned later that the dispatcher initially tried to dismiss my mother’s request for help. My mom was told that I had obviously gotten myself involved in an annual “game or prank” the kids play on each other every year on a designated evening around spring break. My mom had to convince the dispatcher that this incident was worth police involvement.

Over the next few days, the police were able to view the incident on film. They identified the license plate of the truck and tracked down the owner and the driver. Eventually, they identified several other young people in the truck that night – one female and the rest males; all white; all attendees of Benicia Unified; and all but one under the age of 18.

They also found the owner of the gun and the gun itself. Although the kids were interrogated, none of them confessed to being the hate-shouter, nor the shooter, and no one was prosecuted. The school district was informed, but because the act took place off campus and outside of school hours, no disciplinary actions were taken.

The only follow up for us took place a few weeks later. The detective on our case asked my mom and me if we would be willing to have a supervised meeting with the one youth who was over 18. We agreed. The meeting was held at the police station with the detective and one other police officer present. The other kid and I were each asked to tell our story and “hash it out.” No apology was required, and none was forthcoming.

When it was over, the detective persuaded my mom and me to sign a statement of release that waived any further prosecution on the grounds that this young man would have his life ruined if we went forward. Feeling coerced, we both signed the waiver. I now regret that. This young man and his friends had enthusiastically participated in an activity which is comparable to Russian pogroms or KKK lynchings and have not had to endure any significant consequences.

A game for some, a nightmare for others

The so-called game is called “La Migra (Immigration) Night” and, although the title has changed over time, it has been going on for decades. I have since learned that it is a night where many upperclassmen students, usually white and usually male, chase down the underclassmen. They have been known to harass, kidnap, and, as in my case, assault other students of color or anyone else who is different and/or appears weak and vulnerable, whether or not they are an actual participant.

ICE Agents menace a parade
ICE’s enforcement practices create racist narratives primarily targeting Latino individuals. These issues are echoed in and reinforced by the Game. | Uncredited image.

Nearly all of the students know about this “game.” Some of the underclassmen willingly take part, taking on the challenge of being chased. Many others stay in for the night, afraid of the possible consequences of being “captured” and/or knowing that the “game” is morally, ethically, and legally wrong. I was unaware of this long-time tradition because of my relative newness to the community and because Covid interfered with school activities for a significant amount of time between my arrival here and last year. Since that evening last year, I learned that an estimated 50-75% of the white upperclassmen boys participate in the chase. And it’s horrifying.

Although the evening may be over for the young people in the truck, it is not over for me. I suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress and I am no longer comfortable participating in school or district-wide events, including senior prom. It’s difficult for me to attend school. Now I avoid walking down First Street and have since that evening over a year ago. I am not able to enjoy or be part of this beautiful community.

I feel like I am living in a Sundown Town – one where it is not safe for those who are different or vulnerable to be out at night.
It certainly does not feel safe to me.

Share your story

If you would like Sheri to hear and share your perspective on the ‘La Migra Game,’ please contact her through the Benicia Independent. Remember that it is your story that is critical for others to hear, not your name, unless you would like to be identified.
Reach out to Sheri:
Leave a voicemail for the BenIndy: ‪(707) 385-9972‬

(This is not a live line. You will be sent straight to voicemail.)


Versions of this story have been shared by other print and online sources, including the Benicia Herald. The Herald  does not have an online edition. To support our local newspaper, please subscribe by email at or by phone at 707-745-6838.


[BenIndy contributor Roger Straw: ‘Benicia Our Home’ at the Clocktower will be incredible – kind of a send-off for my sweetheart of 52 years, Benicia Poet Laureate Mary Susan Gast. Larnie Fox commented on Mary Susan’s poetry and leadership, “Mary Susan has been an amazing presence on the scene here, easing us through insurrections, mass shootings and COVID with compassion and insight.” As to the June 25 event, I can’t believe we ALSO have the California Poet Laureate Lee Herrick coming! And more – Constance Beutel’s song-video will bring Benicians together in an unprecedented way – such positivity as we’ve not seen in my time in Benicia… Mark your calendar now, and plan to attend!]

Click image to enlarge.
BENICIA OUR HOME, JUNE 25 – Mark your calendar now!

Plan now to attend a festive historic event at Benicia’s Clocktower on June 25th at 3 PM. Benicians and friends will gather to celebrate our homeplace, to tell its story and join in song. This free event sponsored by the Benicia Public Library will feature a very special guest, California’s Poet Laureate Lee Herrick, and we will hear from our outgoing Poet Laureate, Mary Susan Gast. Visual artwork portraying life in Benicia will be on display, and we will hear “ZipOdes 94510,” short poems by Benician residents. A super highlight will be the premier showing of “Benicia Our Home,” a film portraying scenes of Benicia accompanied by over 200 Benicians in song. Don’t miss this!

Reserve the date – June 25 – and plan to meet at the Clock Tower at 3PM.

Looking forward to being with you there!

Roger Straw

For safe and healthy communities…