Martinez Toxic Dust Leak Poisons A Community
Martinez Toxic Dust Leak Poisons A Community

As recently reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Martinez Refining Company was added to the long list of polluters who have failed to take their compliance responsibilities seriously under the Clean Air Act. 

Both the FBI and EPA are now investigating the release of 20 tons of toxic dust. It occurred during Thanksgiving, 2022, when there was a “malfunction” at this  oil refinery in Martinez, CA. Both Contra Costa County and the FBI confirmed the investigation. 

The refinery spewed toxic ash that contained higher-than-normal amounts of heavy metals, beginning at 9:30 pm on Thanksgiving evening and on into early Friday morning. Residents claimed they woke up to white powdery residue on surfaces, similar to ash. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District charted a 15-mile area of Contra Costa County where the refinery dust may have fallen that night.

Heavy metals such as copper, cadmium, lead and nickel are added to crude oil in order to enhance their performance. According to the CDC, exposure to cadmium alone can damage people’s lungs, irritate the digestive system and cause death. Nickel exposure can lead to cancer as well as harm to the lungs, stomach and kidneys. Lead exposure can impact a person’s brain as well as their central nervous system, cause comas, convulsions and even death. Copper exposure also has serious health impacts, both short-term and long-term. Dumping 20 tons of toxins into the air is not just inexcusable, it is criminal. Hence, the FBI has taken an interest in the dumping of these toxins into the air near Martinez during Thanksgiving last year. It’s great that the FBI and EPA are interested in an enforcement action, but what about the residents of Martinez that are the victims of this dump of toxic pollution? Who is going to look after their health or the health of their gardens and surrounding environment?

PBF Energy

The owner of the refining company (Martinez Refining Co.) is PBF Energy, a petroleum refiner and supplier of unbranded transportation fuels, heating oils, lubricants, petrochemical feedstocks and other petroleum products. PBF is at least partially owned by the private equity company Blackstone Group. Headquartered in New Jersey, PBF owns refineries in Louisiana, Ohio, Delaware and California. PBF has actually gone on the offensive of late, battling clean air initiatives in a variety of cities, including San Francisco. The refinery corporation, along with oil giant Chevron, sued Bay Area air regulators to block rules limiting pollution being spewed into the air.

In 2021, while claiming it was working with Bay Area air regulators, PBF was also arguing against purchasing a device to meet new regulation standards. While a PBF executive claimed the refinery was moving toward reducing its particulate matter releases, the company was simultaneously pushing back against more stringent standards. 

Regulators were right to be concerned about PBF's behavior, as it was discovered in January of 2023, that Delaware City's PBF refinery discharged more than one million pounds of nitrogen into the Delaware River in 2021. While not technically violating standards, these are highly dangerous amounts of Nitrogen into a source of water for many.

Who Suffers Most from Heavy Metal Exposure

It's largely the local communities who suffer exposure whenever a refinery has a leak or some other pollution-related problem. In Martinez, Contra Costa Health officials had to advise employees not to eat produce grown in soil that may have been exposed during the toxic dust release.

Environmental Litigation

Large-scale pollution like this requires litigation. In a perfect world, PBF would have abided by Bay Area regulators and made actual efforts to clean up the refinery. However, the company dug in its heels, and got into court battles with local and federal officials, only to pollute the entire county en masse. Rather than clean up their act, they demonstrated the need for restrictions, regulations and legal action. There needs to be legal action on behalf of residents, as well as on behalf of municipalities, both of which have to deal with the aftermath of PBF’s negligence.

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