Neighbors fuming after Coke dust release from Martinez refinery

Contra Costa County's health department is investigating the emission of coke dust at the Martinez Refining Company on Friday, meanwhile neighbors to the refinery are frustrated. 

According to the Contra Costa County Health Department, they were alerted to the release of coke dust at the refinery on Friday morning, which had the potential to impact nearby neighborhoods. Coke dust is a byproduct of the petroleum refining process and it has spouted from the refinery on previous occasions.

Contra Costa Health said the release of the coke dust ceased about half an hour after it began, and a hazmat team was dispatched to the refinery to investigate. 

The refinery confirmed the incident, but noted that the release of coke dust was brief. The refinery stated that it commenced around 10:30 a.m. when equipment was opened for maintenance, saying in a statement, "We issued a Community Warning System Level 1 notification, and our refinery personnel are conducting community monitoring. We have also notified appropriate agencies and apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused our neighbors."

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District said in a statement that inspectors patrolling the neighborhood did not find any visible dust.

CCH also said there’s no immediate public health concern or risk of exposure to toxins, but neighbors there aren’t buying it. 

"My chest was a little tight today, I’m coughing in the kitchen," said neighbor Heidi Taylor.

This is the third release of dust in 12 months, with one of those releases launching an FBI and EPA investigation. In November 2022, the dust released by the same refinery included toxic heavy metals which were exposed to residents breathing in dust particles in the initial days after the release.  Residents were told not to eat vegetables grown outside and wear masks when cleaning the dust, which contained "spent-catalyst."

After Friday morning's release, a complaint was received by the Air District at 10:52 am alleging smoke observed at approximately 10:37 am, which is before the refinery formally reported the release.

"They tell us they have it under control, and that they’re going to be good neighbors and they’re sorry for the things that have happened in the past then why does it keep happening," said Taylor, who helped found the community group Healthy Martinez. 

"After we all spoke at the city council meeting, we came together and realized we aren’t going to stand for this, so we started Healthy Martinez," she said. "Living in this current environment not knowing what’s being dumped on us exactly, not knowing what the effect is on my health, my animals, my property, I’m sick of it."

Neighbors shared photos with KTVU of dust particles on their plants following Friday's coke dust release.

Martinez resident Cady Masterman’s husband provided KTVU with a photo seemingly showing black dust on her child’s stroller. 

"An MRC representative and a Contra Costa HazMat representative came to our house and said the dust is carbon, non-toxic. Either way, I’m going to scrub the stroller as if it’s dangerous. This is reminiscent of last November’s heavy metal release," said Masterman.

"There are dust particles here," said Joey Piscitelli, who inspected his tomato garden. 

Piscitelli has been vocal, attending city council meetings and demanding officials look into the long term affects of the dust. 

"One toxic dust release isn’t the problem, it’s the cumulative effect, which they’re dodging," he said. 

Healthy Martinez told KTVU in a statement, "The refinery produces nearly a ton of emissions daily, and a spent catalyst release last Thanksgiving sent another 20-24 tons of toxic dust into the community. Local advocates from Healthy Martinez have urged MRC to come into compliance with Bay Area Quality Management Rule 6-5 and implement a wet gas scrubber, something that could eliminate emissions by up to 70 percent. The Contra Costa Health Department is currently investigating the release and has yet to issue cleaning instructions for the petcoke dust."

Contra Costa Health said the primary health risk from the chemical release in November would have happened in the first few days, when people were breathing in dust particles. During investigations, the health department hired a toxicologist to test the soil, who confiemed there is no increased risk from exposure to hazardous metals in the soil.

KTVU asked officials at the refinery whether they have protocols in place to avoid any more releases of the dust. They did not immediately respond.

"If you’re running a refinery and putting that amount of toxic dust in the air, if you’re that irresponsible you shouldn’t be in business at all," said Piscitelli. 

CCH said the refinery will not be doing any more maintenance today, so officials believe community events on Friday can proceed as planned, including Alhambra High School's homecoming football game and parade.

CCH and the Air District are continuing to investigate. The refinery must supply a 72-hour report to CCH.

Taylor told KTVU Martinez Mayor Brianne Zorn will have a meeting with the Martinez Refining Company and members of Healthy Martinez later this month.