CoCo County DA's office joins with other agencies to penalize Martinez refinery

The agencies with various environmental and legal complaints against Martinez Refining Company are teaming up to seek a common penalty against the refinery for issues going back to last year's Thanksgiving weekend release of more than 20 tons of spent catalyst into the community.   

The Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District on Thursday jointly announced a common civil enforcement action that also includes the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Contra Costa County Health.     

All the agencies have notices of violation and enforcement referrals against MRC. They're working with the refinery to reach an acceptable penalty for the Thanksgiving night 2022 release, as well as at least three smaller chemical releases the past year.   

"The goal of this joint effort with the air district is to achieve a resolution that ensures environmental compliance, and to rebuild and foster a safer community for the residents of Martinez," Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton said.     

"We welcome the opportunity to work collaboratively with the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office as we take a comprehensive approach to ensure MRC's compliance with all air quality regulations," said Alexander Crockett, chief counsel of the air district. "This partnership combines our prosecutorial resources to help ensure we achieve the best possible results for the residents of Martinez."   

About 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 24, 2022, 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.     

County health officials didn't find out about the release until the following Saturday when alerted to social media posts about the dust.     

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.     

The refinery has since apologized and told the City of Martinez it has taken 11 specific corrective actions: two associated with equipment, six associated with refinery procedures, and three associated with better training.   

The refinery has also been involved in three smaller releases of "coke dust" that 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."       

The joint action is a "pre-filing" move and meant to find common ground on a penalty. The conversations between agencies also included MRC, the district attorney's office said. It's not a settlement agreement and is just the first move in finding a suitable penalty.   

If the agencies and MRC can't all find common ground, the DA's office will likely move forward with charges, the DA's office said.