Category Archives: Contra Costa Health Services – Hazardous Materials Programs

Will a year of industrial accidents change the landscape of East Bay’s ‘refinery row’?

[Note from BenIndy: This tidbit from the article below says a lot  – “According to the regional air quality district, the number of flaring events nearly doubled last year, the most since 2019. The trend has been increasing in the last five years. That rise has led some observers to question whether these century-old refineries have reached the end of their lifecycle.” And: “’If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that nothing is going to happen overnight,’ [Healthy Martinez member Heidi] Taylor said. ‘But I believe the cumulative pressure is going to bring about a new era, and I am here for it.’” Thanks, Heidi. We’re here for it too.]

At 12:42 a.m. what appears to be a flare up is occurring at the Martinez Refinery in Martinez, Calif., on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. | Jose Carlos Fajardo / Bay Area News Group.

An aging industry is angering locals and sparking multiple investigations

East Bay Express, by Will McCarthy, December 16, 2023

On Friday morning, Contra Costa County Public Health warned residents about a new flaring incident at the Martinez Refinery. The agency said that unidentified chemical odors in the air could be related to the event and that “eye, skin, nose or throat irritation may be possible for some people in the affected area.”

The public health advisory in Martinez came exactly one week after the air surrounding the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond took on the distinct smell of burning tires. Over a hundred local residents, disturbed by the noxious odor, reported it to the local air quality agency.

Both incidents, although by no means the most dramatic, were more mishaps in a long year of refinery accidents and violations in the East Bay industrial cluster that forms a sort of refinery row.

Refineries have long been part of the Bay Area’s economic and energy ecosystem. Many of them have existed for over a hundred years and still serve as a significant tax base for cities and a source of reliable union jobs. This is not the first year that refineries have flared, nor is it the first year there have been facility accidents.

In November, an employee received third-degree burns covering most of his body after a fire erupted at Marathon Petroleum’s refinery in Martinez, the second fire that month. A power outage at the Chevron refinery, also in November, caused an enormous plume of black smoke to billow out of the facility for hours. Over the course of 13 months, the Martinez Refining Co., owned by petroleum giant PBF Energy, scattered coke dust and spent catalyst containing heavy metals over the surrounding town, including a high-profile incident the day after Thanksgiving last year that brought a new level of attention to the refinery’s mishaps and another that came just hours before the local high school’s spring homecoming parade.

After an investigation of the odor on Dec. 8, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District determined Chevron’s bioreactor was to blame. The agency issued a public nuisance notice of violation to Chevron — its 35th violation of the year and second in two weeks.

As the region and the nation plot a clean-energy transition, some advocates are asking whether these high-profile incidents are the last gasps of a dying industry that will try to reap as many profits as possible before they are gone.

“Companies are willing to put not just the local communities but their own workers at risk for profit,” said Jacob Klein, organizing manager for the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Sierra Club. “Community safety and worker safety does not seem to be their priority.”

As a result of the most recent accidents, numerous agencies have started investigations into the refineries’ safety practices. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the Contra Costa District Attorney’s office, the EPA and even the FBI all have ongoing investigations. Residents of Martinez have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Martinez Refining Company for its chemical releases.

As the calendar moves toward January, Bay Area community advocates are determined not to repeat more of the same next year. Instead they aim to build on the activism that grew after the Thanksgiving incident to permanently transform the relationship between refineries and the community.

“With all of these mishaps affecting more and more people, more and more people are being educated and are educating themselves about these issues,” said Heidi Taylor, a member of Healthy Martinez, a local watchdog group that emerged in the aftermath of the spent catalyst release. “We haven’t seen solutions come to fruition, necessarily, but I do believe there is hope on the horizon.”

According to the regional air quality district, the number of flaring events nearly doubled last year, the most since 2019. The trend has been increasing in the last five years. That rise has led some observers to question whether these century-old refineries have reached the end of their lifecycle.

“The Bay Area’s dangerous, aging refineries are all roughly 125 years old,” said Shosana Welscher, an organizer with Sunflower Alliance and the Refinery Transitions Group. “It’s well over time to decommission them and remediate the contaminated land they occupy for safer, cleaner uses.”

In a statement, the Martinez refinery said that it continues to be committed to earning the right to operate in Martinez.

When asked to comment for this story, the Martinez Refinery Company issued a statement saying, “We have apologized to our neighbors for falling short of meeting that commitment. We have implemented corrective actions, continue to cooperate with all government agencies, and have enhanced our communications with our neighbors and public officials.”

A spokesperson for Chevron, meanwhile, said the air district often provides notices of violations in batches and are sometimes issued years after the actual occurrence. They noted that because of their modernization efforts and investments in new technologies, particulate matter emissions have fallen by 36% since 2018, and flaring events have fallen in the last two years.

Chevron places the highest priority on the protection of employees, communities, and the environment, and continually works to enhance the safety of our operations,” said Caitlin Powell, an external communications advisor for Chevron Richmond.

In a presentation to the Martinez City Council in October, refinery manager Daniel Ingram positioned the company as a crucial player in the California energy economy, one that manufactures 20% of the Bay Area’s gasoline supply and 40% of the region’s jet fuel. Although refineries are a significant contributor to air pollution in the Bay Area, they are not the highest — motor vehicles and wildfires both are larger contributors to overall pollution in the region, according to the air district.

But to some, the refineries across the region are emblematic of the country’s slow shift away from fossil fuels. That creates some cognitive dissonance, where California may chart a clean-energy future as refineries around the bay continue to refine oil for overseas markets.

“We could all end up driving Teslas and the refineries polluting more and blowing up more in our communities,” said Greg Karras, a consultant on refinery transitions. “That’s one possible future.”

Still, to community advocates, that is just one of many possible outcomes. Another future is one in which increased public scrutiny and public control prevents the types of accidents and releases that occurred this year.

“If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that nothing is going to happen overnight,” Taylor said. “But I believe the cumulative pressure is going to bring about a new era, and I am here for it.”

Nov. 27 Chevron Richmond refinery power loss triggered flaring incident, black smoke clouds

Chevron Richmond flaring. | KPIX.

CBS Bay Area, by Dave Pehling, November 27, 2023

RICHMOND — Flaring activity at the Chevron Richmond refinery Monday afternoon due to a loss of power at part of the facility has sent a large cloud of black smoke over the region.

A Facebook post by the Chevron Richmond account shortly after 4 p.m. confirmed that the workers at the facility were attempting to “quickly to minimize and stop the flaring.” The post said a “Community Warning System (CWS) Level 1” was issued due to smoke and the visible flaring. This type of warning does not require action by the public, the post said.

A representative from Contra Costa Health (CCH) confirmed that Chevron Richmond notified them about the flaring due to “an unplanned unit shutdown” at about 3:30 p.m. CCH said it was sending a hazardous materials team to the refinery to investigate, but no shelter-in-place order has been issued in connection with the incident.

KPIX chief meteorologist Paul Heggen said the smoke plume is blowing to the west. According to the EPA and Purple Air monitors, there has not been a dramatic decline of ground-level air quality.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has not issued an alert regarding the incident and was currently showing the air quality to be moderate in the area around the refinery. District officials confirmed that their inspectors were investigating at the refinery and that they were “documenting any violations of air quality regulations and assisting first responders.”

The district initially said four complaints were received as of around 4:30 p.m. As of an hour later, 51 complaints had been submitted.

Richmond Fire officials are also at the scene and monitoring air quality.

Judge halts major Bay Area refinery project for state environmental review

The Phillips 66 San Francisco Refinery in Rodeo. | Photo By Dreamyshade, Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Phillips 66 cannot begin operations at a new California biofuel refinery until Contra Costa County fixes flaws in an environmental analysis of the project.

MARTINEZ, Calif. (CN) — Phillips 66 must halt a plan to start operating a new biofuel refinery in Rodeo, California, after a San Francisco Bay Area judge said the county that approved it must fix legal issues with the project’s environmental report card.

Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Edward Weil ordered Phillips 66 to put on hold what would be one of the world’s largest biofuel refineries, to produce some 800 million gallons of biofuel products per year. The county must show that the project fully complies with environmental review requirements which he found had been violated when authorities first approved it.

Petitioners Communities for a Better Environment and the Center for Biological Diversity asked Weil to vacate his prior judgment and prohibit operations while the county works on the known legal flaws in its environmental analysis of the project. They said Weil’s prior judgment allowed the project’s land use permit to remain in place and failed to enjoin operations while the county proved its compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act — the state’s bedrock environmental protection and community right-to-know law.

The judge said in a tentative order that his prior judgment’s purpose was to allow for construction, not operations, while environmental legal issues are considered. He said that he must consider whether there is any conflict between the statement of decision and the judgment.

“There is, however, a potential conflict between the statement of decision and the judgment because the court allowed the land use permit to remain in place but did not specifically enjoin project operations,” Weil said. “Therefore, the court grants petitioners’ motion to vacate the judgment and to issue a new judgment that specifically enjoins project operations until further order of the court.”

Weil ruled from the bench Thursday to execute the tentative order as his official judgment.

Attorney Kurtis Keller, representing Contra Costa County, declined to comment on the ruling Thursday.

Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, lauded Weil’s decision. She noted that construction on the refinery can continue.

“Counties are required to evaluate, disclose and reduce the environmental harms of a project before approving it,” Kretzmann said. “Communities long suffering from refinery pollution have every right to demand maximum protections against toxic emissions and foul odors, and the county needs to secure them.”

The planned refinery is near the Marathon-Tesoro biofuel refinery in Martinez, which itself could eventually produce more than 700,000 gallons per year of biofuel products and become one of the largest biofuel refineries in California. The petitioners say that the two projects would require at least 82,000 truck trips, nearly 29,000 railcars and more than 760 ship and barge visits annually.

That increases pollution, traffic and the risk of spills and accidents from the projects, while generating and processing biofuels that would worsen existing impacts on communities nearby fossil fuel processing plants. The state considers people who live near the refineries to be “disadvantaged” because of their high exposure to pollution from existing industries. The proposed refineries would cement ongoing or increased air and odor pollution for these residents for decades, the petitioners say.

“This is a huge victory for nearby residents who’ve raised serious concerns about pollution that will come from this giant refinery,” said Shana Lazerow, legal director of Communities for a Better Environment. “Allowing this project to operate before the environmental review process is complete would’ve rigged the whole decision in favor of the refinery operator.”

Sara Evall, a student attorney at the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, said Thursday: “The county is obligated to reassess the project based on community members’ input and an unbiased record. Rights of the public to informed democratic decision-making come before Phillips 66’s bottom line.”

The judge’s prior order, which found that the county had violated the California Environmental Quality Act by approving the biofuel refinery without properly assessing major components or adopting mitigation for odor impacts on local communities, came down this past July.

Contra Costa County reporting coronavirus cases by city – Solano County has yet to do so

By Roger Straw, April 5 2020
[UPDATE: On Monday April 6, Solano County released new information showing cases by cities, but detailing only the three largest cities in Solano.  Smaller cities like Benicia are still in the dark.  See COVID-19 in Solano County – 15 new cases over the weekend, curve continues up, partial city listings, fewer tests.  – R.S.]

On Sunday, April 5, the Antioch Herald published information clearly showing a city-by-city listing of positive COVID-19 cases in Contra Costa County.

Contra Costa Health Services: Data reported to CCHS as of 4/5/2020 at 11:30 a.m. Data is manually compiled from CalREDIE and hospitalization data is collected via phone survey. All data points could be a snapshot at different times. We are continually working on improving the data collection.

This information comes from the Contra Costa Health Department’s coronavirus Dashboard – see coronavirus.cchealth.org/dashboard.  The listing also notes City population and Cases per 100,000.  (Note that the Dashboard was slow to barely functional at the time of this writing.  I’m guessing this is due to high traffic volume.)

SOLANO COUNTY REFUSAL

Solano County officials have been approached on multiple occasions with requests for more detailed information as to the whereabouts of cases in our county.  On advice of County Council Bernadette Curry, the Solano Health Department has refused to release a city-based listing.  Curry claims that releasing city specific data would violate the County’s obligations under HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that was passed by Congress in 1996.

Note that Contra Costa is disclosing the number of cases in several cities smaller than Benicia.

On March 27, we reported that Orange County CA is also releasing a city-based listing of cases.

We hope the Solano County Counsel will reconsider and permit the Health Department to be more transparent.  Residents and businesses deserve to know more about the facts and trends in our home towns.