Another flaring incident at troubled Martinez Refining Company; strong odor felt for miles (again)

[Note from BenIndy: On Tuesday, December 19, at 6pm, Benicia City Council will be considering taking the second step in a two-step process that would direct staff to examine bringing an Industrial Safety Ordinance to Benicia. Benicia residents have long wished for the same standards, mechanisms, and systems of care afforded to Martinez through Contra Costa’s Industrial Safety Ordinance –standards, mechanisms, and systems that at least appear to generate genuine accountability and transparency when incidents like this occur. After allegations of decades of deceit (or ignorant noncompliance, if we’re being generous) from Valero’s Benicia Refinery and its ongoing failure to meet essential air quality standards, Benicia’s community has issued a vote of no-confidence in a mostly toothless Cooperation Agreement between the City and Valero, and Valero’s capability or willingness to be proactive and truthful about its ongoing violations and incidents . . . and with it, the community has issued a vote of very-little-confidence in regulatory bodies that are tasked with enforcing compliance with important standards that aim to protect the public’s health and safety. The community has asked Benicia City Council to accept the burden of trust that may have been misplaced in this so-called Cooperation Agreement and the refinery, its parent corporation, and some regulatory bodies. Add your voice to this effort if you care about this community’s health and safety. Tell Benicia City Council that they are the only ones we will trust to protect us from special interests and corporate greed.]

The Martinez Refining Co. is the focus of a joint civil action over its release of heavy-metal laden dust. | Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle.

CBS News Bay Area, by Carlos Castaneda, December 15, 2023

Flaring from the Martinez Refining Company on Friday morning prompted an investigation by Contra Costa Health officials who expressed concerns of increased flaring events since the refinery was investigated in November 2022 following a major chemical release.

“The health department is very concerned that these incidents are continuing to happen,” said Contra Costa County Health Director Dr. Ori Tzvieli during a briefing Friday on the latest flaring. “At a properly functioning refinery, there should not be regular flaring. There should not be releases of catalyst and coke dust onto the community as we have seen.

“So we’re very concerned that there’s underlying processes and safety practices at this refinery that are not up to snuff … It’s not acceptable to have these ongoing releases and flaring events,” Tzvieli said.

Nicole Heath, director of Contra Costa Health’s hazardous materials program, explained that MRC notified CCH via the county’s Community Warning System of an incident at the refinery around 9:15 a.m. Initially, the CWS notification identified the flaring as a Level 1 incident — or one that has no expected off-site consequences.

At the same time, CCH received complaints from residents in the greater Martinez area about a strong odor and deployed its hazmat response team to investigate, later calling for the incident to be elevated to a Level 2 — one that is expected to have an impact on the community. Tzvieli said this could mean those with sensitivities to the odor might experience headaches or other irritations.

Heath noted that CCH’s air monitoring systems did not indicate quantities of gas above health advisory levels published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She said the standards are used to determine the exposure levels at which it’s believed there would be an effect on public health. The CCH team has taken readings throughout the community, including at various elementary schools, she added.

Tzvieli said the monitors are detecting low levels of a gas called hydrogen sulfide and noted there may be other sulfur-containing gases in the air. They can be a byproduct of the refining process, but he said they should not be released.

Heath expanded on the refining process, which requires high temperatures and pressure to convert oils into different gases. Flaring is a means to safely release excess pressure. However, she noted, the increase in flaring events indicates that units are having issues more often — potentially a symptom of a deeper issue.

“So when we get the 72-hour report, our team will be able to investigate the incident and see if there are any regulatory non-compliances as a result of this,” Heath said.

When asked if the refinery would be closed down due to noncompliance, the CCH officials said it would be premature to make that determination.

“But we are very committed to investigating this fully and understanding the causes and working with the facility to have safer practices,” Tzvieli said. “Because as I said, this level of flaring releases is not acceptable to our community.”

In a Friday morning Facebook post, MRC, owned by PBF Energy Inc., wrote that the flaring occurred due to an “operational incident.”

The post said, “We are aware of odor complaints and are conducting community monitoring to investigate the source. All appropriate agencies have been notified, and we are working to address these issues. We apologize for any inconvenience to our neighbors. Flares are an essential part of a refinery’s integrated, engineered safety systems designed to safely manage excess combustible gases by burning them off efficiently and effectively.”

MRC officials were not immediately available to comment further on Friday’s flaring.

Reports of the odor have from as far as Crockett, about 11 miles away.

Last month during another flaring incident, the oil refinery said the burnoff was an essential part of safety for the plant’s systems. That flaring incident came a day after a class-action lawsuit accused the refinery of creating a “public nuisance” by releasing chemicals into the surrounding community.

Last year on Thanksgiving night, the refinery released an estimated 20 to 24 tons of “spent catalyst” into the surrounding community until the following morning, when residents found their yards and vehicles covered in metallic dust.

The refinery failed to alert the county health department and the community warning system, both of which are legally mandated within 15 minutes of a release.