The Martinez Refining Company’s manager told the Martinez City Council on Wednesday operators were unaware last Thanksgiving’s release of spent catalyst was affecting the outside community until the next day, and the refinery held off notifying authorities until it could assess whether the release was harmful.
Refinery manager Daniel Ingram apologized and told the council the company has taken numerous corrective actions to make sure the events of last Thanksgiving weekend don’t happen again.
The refinery released an estimated 20 to 24 tons of “spent catalyst” into the surrounding community from about 9:30 p.m. Nov. 24 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.
County health officials didn’t find out about the release until the following Saturday when alerted to social media posts about the dust.
Ingram told the council the delay was at least partially because refinery officials were unaware there was a community impact until the next day, when contacted by a community member. Then they were busy trying to ascertain whether the release was harmful.
Ingram said the refinery has since “adjusted our procedures” so it notifies outside authorities as soon as the slightest measure of a release is noted.
“The moment that alarm goes off, we’re making that notification immediately,” Ingram said.
Initial testing of the Thanksgiving release showed the dust contained elevated levels of aluminum, barium, chromium, nickel, vanadium and zinc, all of which can cause respiratory problems.
Ingram said the refinery has taken 11 specific corrective actions: two associated with equipment, six associated with refinery procedures, and three associated with better training.
As an example, the unit in which the Thanksgiving problem occurred was coming back online after being in a “hot standby mode.”
Bringing it back online was a manual task controlled by an individual who was handling multiple control points. Now more of the process is automatic and, if there’s a problem, the process must be stopped sooner.
Ingram also addressed three smaller releases of “coke dust” incidents that have occurred since July. Coke dust is a byproduct of oil refining. The first release, on July 11, lasted less than a minute and created steam with coke dust, which was carried into the community by wind.
The second release was on July 22 and was contained on-site. The third release happened Oct. 6 and was termed by refinery officials as “brief” in a unit that has since been taken offline. Nevertheless, all three incidents are still being investigated. But Ingram pointed out that, under the refinery’s new procedures, the refinery notified the health department and the community immediately.
Ingram said internal investigations have prompted procedural corrections to have been made, as well as started new ‘red tag” safety drills, going through various emergency scenarios to respond better in the future.
“We do sincerely apologize to our neighbors and the community for these incidents. And I know that actions speak louder than words … we are working overtime right now to investigate thoroughly each and every of these incidents and come up with the appropriate corrective actions that address the root causes of these incidents.”
Ingram talked about the refinery’s new “Goal 0” safety policy, which refers to zero safety incidents as a cultural goal of the company. He said everyone at the refinery is dedicated to Goal 0.
“We know we have to earn the right to operate in the community that hosts us, and we are very, very disappointed that we have failed to do that,” he said.
Ingram said the refinery has implemented new mandatory safety training and has expanded its environmental safety staff, hiring new senior environmental engineers and 20 new operators. He also said he will return to give the council regular monthly updates.
The Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office is investigating MRC for failing to notify authorities of the Thanksgiving release. The Board of Supervisors put together an oversight committee, including residents from affected areas, to investigate the cause and whether the release increased risk of community health problems. [Emph. added by BenIndy.]