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.

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




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