Category Archives: Federal investigation

Contra Costa Health Investigating Oct. 6 Coke Dust Release at Martinez Refining Company

A picture of Martinez Refining Company in the distance with residences in the foreground.
Contra Costa’s Health Department issued a warning to the community after Martinez Refining Company (MRC, pictured) accidentally released petcoke dust at 10:31 am during maintenance. In order to prevent disruption of Alhambra’s High School homecoming parade and other Friday night community events, MRC will use a different process to finish the maintenance work that triggered the release.  | Anda Chu / Bay Area News Group.

For Release: Friday, October 6, 2023
Contact: CCH Media Line, 925-608-5463 or

Contra Costa Health (CCH) deployed a hazardous materials team to investigate a reported release of petroleum coke dust from Martinez Refining Company (MRC) about 11 a.m. Friday, Oct. 6.

The release ended soon after it was reported by MRC to Contra Costa County’s Community Warning System. CCH has not found evidence of any immediate risk to public health in surrounding communities.

MRC reported that the release began at 10:31 a.m. while workers were conducting maintenance, which was stopped due to the release.

CCH is aware of the Alhambra High School homecoming parade set for Friday evening. MRC confirmed there will not be additional maintenance on Friday, and they will use a different process to complete the work.  [Emph. added by BenIndy.]

Following an assessment by our health officer, CCH believes the homecoming parade and other community events can proceed as planned.

CCH has asked the facility to provide a 72-hour report regarding the cause of the release, which will be posted at

Saturday’s ‘coke dust’ release marks the Martinez Refining Company’s second leak in two weeks

[BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: A big thanks to Michelle Pellegrin for alerting me to this second coke dust release.]

A picture of Martinez Refining Company in the distance with residences in the foreground.
The Martinez Refining Company has reported two petcoke leaks in less than two weeks. | Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group.

Mercury News, by Will McCarthy, July 23, 2023

The Martinez Refining Company reported the second release of ‘coke dust’ in less than two weeks on Saturday evening, according to the Contra Costa County Health Department.

The health department said that hazmat teams did not immediately find evidence of coke dust in surrounding neighborhoods following the release. Coke dust is a black sooty substance chemically similar to charcoal that is created during the refining process.

The refinery first reported the release of coke dust, a byproduct of petroleum refining, at 6:04 p.m.

The Martinez Refining Company issued a statement on Facebook indicating that the release was contained within refinery grounds, and that there were not any “off-site impacts.” The statement said that the report was only issued out of an “abundance of caution,” and that the refinery “immediately contacted appropriate agencies and conducted community monitoring.”

“We apologize for any concern this may have caused our community,” the statement read.

After the previous release on July 11th, Contra Costa County health officials advised residents to avoid breathing the black dust released by the Martinez Refinery Company and to avoid making close contact with it until hazardous-materials teams were able to collect and test samples of the residue.

In that case, the health department ultimately concluded the release did not pose a long term health threat.

The oil refinery is currently under investigation for the release of toxic heavy metals into the community in November 2022.


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Here we go again – New leak at Martinez refinery under investigation

HazMat crews responding to release of petroleum coke ‘dust’ at Martinez refinery

A picture of Martinez Refining Company in the distance with residences in the foreground.
The Martinez Refining Company is under investigation for another leak, this time a petcoke ‘dust’ release. It took two hours for the refinery to alert the Contra Costa Health Department about the leak, prompting renewed scrutiny for refinery notification standards and protocols. | Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group

, by Alex Baker, July 11, 2023

(KRON) — HazMat crews are responding to the Martinez Refining Company in Martinez after chemical dust was released into the air on Tuesday. The incident is being investigated by inspectors, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The agency said it is closely monitoring a petroleum coke release at the refinery and responding to complaints.

The agency is also documenting air quality violations and assisting first responders.

“Follow instructions from health officials,” the agency advised.

The Contra Costa Health Department’s HazMat team is also responding to the incident, which it described as the “release of dust” from Martinez Refining Company. Material from the release is visible on the ground in the surrounding neighborhoods, according to CCH.

Unlike a release of spent catalyst at the refinery last November that lasted from Thanksgiving night until the next day, MRC did notify CCH of the release at 10:22 a.m. Tuesday, according to CCH spokesperson Karl Fischer.

Tuesday’s release occurred at about 8:30 a.m. and lasted one minute. However, health officials expressed concern that it took nearly two hours for MRC to notify them.

“We are very concerned about the delayed notification to the Community Warning System,” said Contra Costa County Supervisor Federal Glover. “We are once again responding to a refinery incident and trying to determine the health impacts. We understand this is an ongoing concern for our community and timely notification is critical.”

“We do not yet know how much material was released, or how far it spread,” Fischer said. Sirens did not go off, as the refinery reported the release to the Community Warning System as a Level 1 incident, which doesn’t require the alarms. No area streets were closed for cleanup.

Like the November release, community members found dust particles on parked cars and on the ground.

Fischer said the material released was “coke dust,” which is a byproduct of the petroleum refining process. In November, the particles were “spent catalyst,” comprised of elevated levels of aluminum, barium, chromium, nickel, vanadium, and zinc, all of which can cause respiratory problems.

Health workers took samples for analysis Tuesday morning. CCH hazardous materials crews are investigating. Fischer said.

The public is advised to avoid breathing or coming into close contact with the material. CCH is collecting samples for lab analysis.

The refinery put out a statement on social media, describing the incident as a “brief release of Coke dust,” and saying that refinery personnel were conducting community monitoring.

The refinery urged anyone who had a claim or concern related to the release to contact a claims rep at 800-542-7113.

What is petroleum coke dust?

Petroleum coke is a carbon rich solid material that is a byproduct of oil refining. The substance is described as black in color and resembles soot. Health officials recommend using soap and water to clean impacted outdoor surfaces.

Bay City News contributed to this report.


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Martinez refinery’s chemical release may not have long-term effects, but residents’ sense of safety is ‘shattered’

[Note from BenIndy contributor Nathalie Christian: It’s mostly good news – soil tests suggest that the Martinez Refinery Company’s (MCR) 50,000-pound chemical release last November will have no long-term effects on our safety.  However, these same soil tests showed arsenic and lead levels either close to or in excess of state health limits at some sites. Toxicologists say that these concentrations were not related to the November release, so now my questions are: Which sites are showing unsafe lead and arsenic levels, exactly? Where did the toxic compounds come from if not the MRC release? And of course there’s the matter of MRC not disclosing the incident and associated impacts until its hand was forced. A report with more information is due in the next few weeks, stay tuned.]

Martinez Refinery’s Chemical Release Poses No Long-Term Hazard, Tests Find

A picture of Martinez Refining Company in the distance with residences in the foreground.
Martinez Refinery. | Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group.

KQED, by Ted Goldberg and Dan Brekke, June 8, 2023

Contra Costa County health officials announced Thursday that soil testing conducted in the months after a Martinez oil refinery released nearly 50,000 pounds of powdered industrial chemicals last November has found no long-term health risks to residents in the area.

Contra Costa Health Officer Dr. Ori Tzvieli said the county is immediately lifting a March 7 advisory (PDF) that recommended residents refrain from consuming fruits and vegetables grown in soil that had received fallout from the Martinez Refining Company’s release. The refinery company is owned and operated by PBF Energy, based in Parsippany, New Jersey.

Tzvieli said the soil testing and an associated risk assessment “confirms that the primary health risk from the spent catalyst release occurred in the initial hours and days after the refinery release.”

The soil-testing results were released to a community oversight committee formed after the releases, which occurred last Nov. 24–25, on Thanksgiving and the following day.

Tzvieli added during a media briefing that followed the committee meeting that because PBF failed to immediately notify officials about the release, questions remain about what health effects residents might experience because of their exposure to the toxic dust immediately after it settled on their neighborhoods.

“We weren’t able to do measurement in real time because we didn’t know this was going on until several days later,” Tzvieli said. “So had we been able to do measurement in real time, we would have been able to look at concentrations — what was in the air.”

Some of the heavy metals in the dust, such as nickel, pose health concerns, he said.

“Some of those can have effects on the immune system, some of these metals can be carcinogenic. So it is a concerning incident,” he said.

At the same time, he added, the inability to measure the November release as it was occurring makes it hard to distinguish the hazard the incident posed from the impact of ongoing refinery emissions.

“So that’s why it’s hard to give people specific information about the risks that stemmed from this particular release,” Tzvieli said.

Consultants hired by the county analyzed soil samples from 14 sites stretching from El Sobrante to Benicia for more than a dozen metals that may have been associated with the release of 24 tons of refinery dust — material described as “spent catalyst” used in the refining process.

The results for most of the heavy metals the samples were analyzed for, including aluminum, copper, nickel, zinc and chromium, all came back both within an expected regional background range and below residential health limits set by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.

Jenny Phillips, a toxicologist employed by consultant TRC, reported that samples of arsenic and lead were close to or exceeded state health limits at a handful of sites. But she added that the higher levels of those two toxic metals were probably unrelated to last November’s refinery release. [Emphasis added.] TRC’s report will be made available to the public sometime in the next two weeks, and it will be open for comment for 45 days.

‘One hundred ninety-four days after the release, we are now at the point where we’re telling people it’s OK to eat the fresh fruits and vegetables. The process is flawed.’Tony Semenza, Martinez resident and member of the oversight committee

Matt Kaufmann, Contra Costa County’s deputy health director, emphasized that the investigation of the Martinez incident is far from over. The county has hired a consultant to perform an independent root cause analysis of the release, and county prosecutors are weighing potential charges against the refinery.

Kaufmann criticized the refining company for failing to immediately notify local officials when the incident occurred.

The test results released Thursday “do not excuse the Martinez Refining Company for the lack of notification at the onset of this incident,” he said. “The lack of timely notification negated our ability as health officials to protect our community, including those most vulnerable, namely the medically compromised, the elderly and the children within our community.”

In a statement, PBF Energy spokesperson Brandon Matson said the company was “pleased” the county had released the soil-testing analysis and lifted its health advisory.

“The results are in line with our initial statements about the material,” Matson said. He also offered the latest in a string of apologies the company has offered to Martinez residents, saying the company has investigated the release, has identified corrective actions and is committed to implementing them.

Tony Semenza, a Martinez resident serving on the oversight committee, expressed frustration that it has taken so long to assess the hazard posed by the releases.

“One hundred ninety-four days after the release, we are now at the point where we’re telling people it’s OK to eat the fresh fruits and vegetables,” Semenza said. “The process is flawed. This should have been done much quicker, a while ago. … I’m upset with the way the process works.”

The test results come less than two weeks after the FBI confirmed it has launched a joint investigation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency into the Martinez plant’s spent catalyst release.

Members of the refinery accountability group Healthy Martinez welcomed the largely reassuring test results, but expressed continuing misgivings about PBF and the refinery.

“I’m grateful that the Thanksgiving release no longer poses serious danger and that Contra Costa Health has demonstrated leadership in this process, but I still don’t trust the refinery that didn’t report it,” said Martinez resident group member Jillian Elliott.

“Today’s results are only one piece of the larger issue,” said Heidi Taylor, a longtime Martinez resident and Healthy Martinez member. “It doesn’t change the fact that this oil refinery dumped toxic metals on our community (and) didn’t report it to county health.”

Healthy Martinez has also called on PBF to install improved emissions control and air monitoring equipment at the refinery.

FBI agents and EPA personnel have gone door to door asking residents about their experience during and after the incident. The probe also has included circulation of an online survey.

Martinez resident Wendy Ke said representatives from both federal agencies approached her late last month and asked a series of questions.

“It was primarily, ‘Do you have photos, do you have videos, do you have factual documentation? Did you touch the spent catalyst? Did you see it?’” Ke said.

She said the morning after Thanksgiving, her neighborhood was coated with what looked like ash, as if there had been a major wildfire nearby.

“But it did look a little bit different,” she said. “It didn’t have a light-weight ash to it, like flaky ash. It seemed a little more sticky.”

The same morning, resident Zachary Taylor found his neighborhood covered in dust.

“Just a consistent coating across everything, almost like a snowfall, like a light dusting, but then we go out across the street and absolutely everything is covered with it,” Taylor said.

Refinery dust known as ‘spent catalyst’ from the PBF Energy plant sits on a car windshield in Martinez in late November 2022.

Refinery catalyst is a powdered chemical compound used in the process of breaking down crude petroleum into products like gasoline. Spent catalyst is the material left over after the high-temperature refining process and contains a mix of potentially hazardous components.

Before Thursday’s test results were released, county health officials told Martinez residents that the dust that coated homes, vehicles, lawns, gardens and a nearby schoolyard included heavy metals (PDF), including aluminum, chromium, nickel, vanadium and zinc. The county health department said there could have been short-term respiratory problems from breathing in the dust right after the incident, and that potential long-term health impacts would depend on each person’s exposure.

Contra Costa County hired TRC, a Connecticut-based consulting and engineering firm, to take soil samples in 14 locations (PDF) from El Sobrante to Martinez to Benicia. Those locations were chosen after local air regulators mapped fallout from the release (PDF). Crews began collecting samples in May. Health officials say the samples were taken to a lab to see which health risks they might pose through touching, inhaling or consuming food.

In March, months after the refinery accident, the health department urged residents to refrain from eating food grown in soil that might contain the refinery dust (PDF).

The department also asked local prosecutors to file charges against PBF Energy. That request is under review, according to Ted Asregadoo, a Contra Costa County District Attorney spokesperson.

Asregadoo said the office is investigating whether PBF violated the law by failing to report an actual or threatened hazardous material release to county officials and whether the company made illegal discharges into the county stormwater system.

County officials have emphasized that they learned about the releases not from the refinery but instead from residents. The refinery initially told residents that its testing suggested the release consisted of only nontoxic material. The company also offered free carwash vouchers to Martinez residents.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has said the release was caused by a malfunction (PDF) within the refinery’s fluid catalytic cracking unit. The air district has issued 21 notices of violation against PBF in connection with the November release and continues to investigate the incident, according to district spokesperson Ralph Borrmann.

PBF representatives have apologized for the releases, noting the company has cooperated with regulators and made changes to prevent a repeat of the Thanksgiving incident.

Nevertheless, some refinery neighbors say their sense of safety has been shattered.

“At this point I feel very uncertain about what I’m breathing, knowing what the potential is for release on a daily basis,” said Ke, who has lived in Martinez for more than a decade.


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