MARTINEZ, Calif. -- Contra Costa Health officials said Tuesday they, along with officials from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, began a surprise inspection at the Martinez Refining Company on Tuesday afternoon that could last a few days to even weeks.
Matthew Kaufmann, CCH's deputy director, said how long the agencies are at MRC -- which is owned by PBF Energy Inc. -- depends on what they find. He didn't offer any preliminary information found during the inspection on Tuesday.
"Contra Costa Health is becoming increasingly concerned about the frequency of safety incidents at PBF over the past year," Kaufmann said.
CCH said it will request records and observe MRC's operation, focusing on safety programs, reliability of equipment and to follow up regarding several recent accidents.
A spokesperson for the Martinez Refining Company said in a statement Wednesday that they have "been cooperating with all agencies and investigations."
On Thanksgiving night 2022, a chemical release began that lasted into the following morning. MRC didn't report the release of 20 to 24 tons of spent catalyst into the community. CCH only found out about it two days later from residents on social media commenting on dust falling onto their front yards and vehicles.
Kaufman said, since the Thanksgiving release, there have been 46 flaring incidents reported by the refinery, as well as a few much smaller releases.
The most recent incident occurred Dec. 17 when flaring related to what MRC said was an "operational incident" two days before caused a grass fire near the refinery.
Kaufmann said Tuesday that MRC initially reported the fire to CCH and the community warning system, but not that it was caused by spilled hydrocarbon fluid ignited by a flaring that day. MRC later said on social media the grass was ignited by the heat of the flare.
"Typically flares will burn gases only, but it appears liquid got to the flare, spilled out of the flare, and ignited the brush that was in the vicinity," Kaufmann said.
People who live and work in Martinez say it's about time authorities take a closer look at Martinez Refining Company -- which is owned and operated by PBF Energy.
"I'm glad they were investigating," said Lisa Rogers of Martinez.
"I think it's about time. I think it's a good thing they are being held accountable for it," said Steven Walker who has lived in Martinez for the past decade.
"They should have done it 10 years ago," said "Bear" Nicholson of Martinez.
Nicholson says the flarings have been a very big concern.
"The flare offs in the past three weeks have just been crazy. You can smell it. We smell it all the time. It's so bad we had to close the windows," said Nicholson.
Authorities accuse the refinery of not being transparent with some of the flarings. Martinez Councilmember Mark Ross is director of Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
"I'm very upset about it. Since they are our neighbor, we've learned to co-exist with previous owners of the refinery. But they have definitely crossed the line a bit with the recent series of events in the past year," said Ross. "It seems to be a pattern that is not tolerable to me or the community."
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District issued four notices of violation to MRC over the incident.
Kaufmann also addressed MRC's report to the Martinez City Council the following week, in which MRC said there was no detectable chemicals found outside the refinery afterward. Kaufmann said CCH "felt it was necessary to either correct misinformation or provide accuracy to statements that were made by (the) refinery."
"That was a statement that was made that there (were) odors in the neighborhood surrounding the refinery and that there was no measurement of any levels of chemicals found and that actually was not true," Kaufmann said. "At this incident, we conducted air monitoring and did find levels. Those levels were very low and not considered a health concern, but the community could smell sulfur compounds surrounding the community."
CCH said in a statement Tuesday that, so far in 2023, there have been 21 documented releases or spills of hazardous materials at MRC.
"Repeated commitments to the community and to regulators to improve the culture of safety at PBF have not resulted in improvement," Contra Costa County Supervisor Federal Glover, whose district includes the refinery, said in a statement. "We intend to hold PBF accountable for making the necessary investments to become a better neighbor."
Board of Supervisors chair John Gioia and Glover, the vice chair, will meet with PBF's corporate leadership at the facility on Thursday to discuss their concerns about how the refinery operates.
CCH will post more information about the investigation as it becomes available at cchealth.org.
ABC7 News reporter Suzanne Phan contributed to this report.
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