The Martinez Refining Company (MRC) should have reported events leading to the Nov. 24 discharge of more than 20 tons of “spent catalyst” days before the discharge actually started, local health officials told the Martinez City Council last week.

Phil Martien from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District said a mechanical failure four days earlier started a chain of events leading to the Thanksgiving night discharge that lasted into the next day.

Councilmember Satinder Malhi asked Martien whether there was any communication between MRC and the air district between Nov. 20, when problems started, and Nov. 24, when the discharge began.

“I believe that there was not great communication during that period,” Martien said.

“Under law are they required, to typically, to notify?” Malhi asked.

“They are required and that’s part of the investigation that’s ongoing,” Martien said.

MRC community relations officials did not respond to emails requesting comment. The refinery has said in past months it is cooperating with the investigations into the discharge.

Waiting for word

Communication between MRC and the public and local government has been at the root of much of the community unease over the November incident.

MRC has been criticized for not notifying the community or the county once the discharge started, as required by law. County health officials have said they didn’t hear of any problems until residents started reporting seeing dust on their vehicles the next day.

Officials from the air district and Contra Costa Health Services (CCHS) briefed the council this past Wednesday on the timeline surrounding the discharge and offered a rough map of where the dust fallout occurred, which was mostly to the west of the refinery.

Dust was found at the Amtrak station, a nearby middle school and the county hospital campus, among other sites, air district officials said. Some of the plume traveled across the Carquinez Strait into Benicia as well.

Dust samples from the Nov. 24 release showed elevated levels of aluminum, barium, chromium, nickel, vanadium and zinc, all of which can cause respiratory problems.

Computer modeling produced maps of where the catalyst traveled, which is meant to help consultants hired by CCHS to initially target specific areas to test soil for contaminants.

CCHS officials on Wednesday said that work should be completed by mid-May.

The release started around 9:30 p.m. Nov. 24. Dust samples later showed elevated levels of aluminum, barium, chromium, nickel, vanadium and zinc, all of which can cause respiratory problems.

The county has formed an 11-member independent panel to investigate the incident and has referred the case to the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office for possible criminal charges against the refinery.

The health department in March warned nearby residents not to eat food grown in their gardens at the time of the release.

Martien told the council the incident actually started Nov. 20 with a problem with the refinery’s fluid catalytic cracking unit that uses a catalyst material to split apart oil feedstocks.

Emission control devices in carbon monoxide (CO) boilers are supposed to use electricity to remove the catalyst.

Safety shutdown

The mechanical problems forced the refinery to shut down the boilers for safety reasons. The refinery ran into problems when trying to restart them four days later.

“They were unable to control a pressure imbalance that built up in the catalyst fold and on Nov. 24 to early Nov. 25, this pressure imbalance sent 20 to 24 tons of catalyst material into the atmosphere from the two CO boilers and the result was the catalyst dust fallout that was observed on surfaces in parts of Martinez,” Martien said.

Councilmember Jay Howard said he was recently on a tour of the refinery, where MRC officials discussed its own “root cause analysis” of the incident, and their plans to rectify conditions so it doesn’t happen again.

Howard also said MRC officials told him they were instructed by CCHS not to communicate with the public over the incident, something that CCHS supervising accidental release prevention engineer Nicole Heath said wasn’t the case.

“To my knowledge no one on our staff has stated that to MRC and we would certainly not want to hinder them from communicating anything out to the public,” Heath said. “I think that there is a miscommunication and, if someone from MRC has concerns, I really encourage them to reach out to me and clarify that because we most certainly would not state that they couldn’t communicate anything out to the public.”