Soil tests clear after Martinez Refinery chemical release, investigations still underway

Dan Noyes Image
Friday, June 9, 2023
Soil tests clear after Martinez Refinery chemical release
Contra Costa County Health officials are lifting an advisory against eating backyard produce, saying soil tests show it's safe. But the refinery is not off the hook.

MARTINEZ, Calif. (KGO) -- Contra Costa County Health officials are lifting an advisory against eating backyard produce that was put in place, after a release of potentially toxic chemicals from the Martinez Refining Company. They say soil tests show it's safe. The soil is just part of the picture. Martinez Refining Company still faces investigations on several fronts.

After Martinez Refining Company released up to 24 tons of potentially dangerous chemicals into surrounding neighborhoods last Thanksgiving, the Contra Costa County Health Department put out an advisory against eating produce from backyard gardens.

Rebecca Barrett started planting sunflowers.

"Sunflowers are known to be able to pull some toxins out of the soil and some heavy metals out of the soil," she told the ABC7 News I-Team. "I have animals, we're planning on having kids soon, like, you worry about all of the potential health risks that could be involved in that."

EXCLUSIVE: FBI launches investigation into chemical release from Martinez Refinery

The ABC7 News I-Team was there as agents from the FBI and EPA interviewed residents about the Thanksgiving Day Martinez Refining Company release.

She also helped start a watchdog group for the refinery, Healthy Martinez.

"We're really just trying to make sure that there's a community response every time to what are your health and safety standards?" Barrett said. "What are you doing to ensure that the community is safe?"

After the chemical release, the county hired an outside company to take soil samples and study them. The results were announced Thursday.

"We really are concluding that the soil within this area is safe," Jenny Phillips, TRC Toxicologist, said.

They lifted the advisory for backyard gardens. That 24 tons of catalyst dust contained mostly silica and aluminum, but also some metals with the potential to cause cancer. But none of the chemicals were found in amounts high enough to cause concern.

RELATED: Are your veggies safe? Contra Costa Co. begins testing soil for harmful metals after exposure

Test results for the soil samples taken around Martinez, where "spent catalyst" was accidentally released from the refinery last November, could take about a month.

"And it was spread over a large area, that's one reason we are not seeing a big impact on the soil content in the data we just took," Phillips said.

However, Contra Costa County Deputy Health Director Matthew Kaufman says the refinery is not off the hook.

"I just want to be crystal clear with our community, these results do not excuse the Martinez Refining Company for the lack of notification at the onset of this incident."

Martinez Refining Company faces several investigations over the release of those chemicals, both civil and criminal.

The Contra Costa County DA's Office is investigating the refinery's "failure to report a release ... of a hazardous material" and "illicit discharges to the county stormwater system". A charging decision is reportedly still months away.

RELATED: Here's why residents are being warned against eating food grown in soil near Martinez Refinery

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District issued 21 notices of violation, and officials say their investigation is still ongoing.

The I-Team's Dan Noyes was there two weeks ago when agents from the FBI and EPA went door-to-door in Martinez, asking residents about any health problems they've encountered that may be linked to the chemical release.

As agents told the I-Team that it's very early in the federal investigation. Some neighbors say they started having breathing problems after the chemical release.

After Thursday's hearing, Martinez Refining Company released this statement:

"We are pleased that Contra Costa County Health Services (CCCHS) has released the results of its soil testing today and lifted its health advisory based on its findings. The results are in line with our initial statements about the material which were based on the Safety Data Sheet for spent catalyst and historical industry information.

We would also like to take this opportunity to apologize to the Martinez community again for the release and the concerns this has caused. We have thoroughly investigated the release and identified appropriate corrective actions at the refinery that we have shared with CCCHS. We are committed to implementing them and will continue to cooperate with all agencies and investigations related to the incident."

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