MARTINEZ, Calif. - Contra Costa Health Services is advising local gardeners not to eat any foods they grow if their soil was impacted by a chemical release near the Martinez Refinery.
The health department released the safety advice on Tuesday, more than three months after flaring at the Martinez Refining Company on Pacheco Boulevard sent roughly 20 tons of spent catalyst into the air. The white powder covered neighborhoods at least one mile away from the refinery.
Spent catalyst is a power dust used in the oil refining process, according to Dr. Ori Tzvieli, Public Health Director for Contra Costa Health Services.
"The substances of concern that we found in the spent catalyst were heavy metals," he said. "When you eat something that's incorporated with heavy metals there can be significant health effects, but they're not immediate. They're the sort of thing that builds up in your body over repeated ingestion."
It's why the agency is advising local gardeners not to eat any food grown in soil that may have been exposed to the white powder.
"Go ahead and plant, but don't yet harvest and eat or ingest that were exposed to the spent catalyst until we have those results back or if you don't want to worry about it, bring in some fresh soil and plant in that," Tzvieli said.
Test results on soil samples won't return until late spring or early summer. Tzvieli said there is an ongoing investigation into how far the chemical release traveled. The agency referred the case to the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office for review.
Carol Rose-Bender is a lifelong gardener who has chosen to skip this vegetable season. She typically grows tomatoes, peas, and lettuce, but lives a mile away from the Martinez Refinery and was impacted by the chemical release.
"I think we can go without having a season for a year before they actually figure out what it is in the soil," she said. "I have some flower seeds that I'll start so that I have something back here, but not necessarily food."
An 11-member oversight committee has been formed to oversee an independent investigation and risk assessment of the November incident, according to Contra Costa Health Services. The committee will hold its second meeting on Thursday.
A spokesperson for the Martinez Refining Company said it received the health department's news release. Part of a statement to KTVU reads: MRC is cooperating with all agencies and agency investigations regarding the November 24, 2022, spent catalyst release. While this incident is still under investigation, we have no further comment at this time.