Inspectors pay surprise visit to Martinez oil refinery plagued by rash of problems

Concerns over chemical emissions problems and “misinformation” from plant managers have prompted an unannounced Contra Costa county inspection of PBF Energy’s oil refinery in Martinez.

Concerns over chemical emissions problems and “misinformation” from plant managers have prompted an unannounced Contra Costa county inspection of PBF Energy’s oil refinery in Martinez.

Paul Kuroda/Special to The Chronicle

Contra Costa Health officials began a surprise inspection at the embattled Martinez Refining Company facility Tuesday, citing a series of emissions problems over the last year and “misinformation” from the oil refining company. 

The PBF Energy-owned oil refinery in Martinez has reported 21 releases or spills of hazardous materials since November 2022, when the facility spewed at least 20 tons of an industrial dust called spent catalyst into surrounding neighborhoods. 

The company has also reported 46 incidents of flaring (an emergency process of burning off excess gasses to prevent problems like explosions) over the last year, a rate of about once a week, officials said. 

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“The frequency of incidents at PBF is not normal,” county deputy health director Matt Kaufman said.

The PBF Energy-owned oil refinery in Martinez has reported 21 releases or spills of hazardous materials since November 2022, when the facility spewed at least 20 tons of an industrial dust called spent catalyst into surrounding neighborhoods.

The PBF Energy-owned oil refinery in Martinez has reported 21 releases or spills of hazardous materials since November 2022, when the facility spewed at least 20 tons of an industrial dust called spent catalyst into surrounding neighborhoods.

Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

Amid these problems, the county health department has “received reports from PBF that did not match what was happening on the ground at the facility,” according to Kaufmann. 

“On multiple occasions, the health department felt it was necessary to either correct misinformation or provide accuracy to statements that were made by refinery managers,” he said. 

Martinez Refining Company spokesperson Brandon Matson said “we have been cooperating with all agencies and investigations related to our refinery and will continue to do so” in response to the Chronicle’s questions about the county’s claims. 

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The surprise inspection is the latest in a series of inquiries into PBF Energy’s operations in Martinez. Earlier this month, the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District announced they were preparing to take civil action against the company for violations related to the fallout one year ago on Thanksgiving night, and potentially other incidents.

Separately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the FBI have separate inquiries into possible civil and criminal violations of the Clean Air Act stemming from the November 2022 incident. In addition, two Martinez residents have sued the company and are asking a judge for class action status

PBF Energy owns six oil refineries across the country, including the 860-acre Martinez campus it purchased from Shell Oil in 2020. 

On Tuesday, unannounced, four health department inspectors plus Bay Area Air Quality Management District staffers showed up at the oil refinery gates just after 1 p.m. The visit launched what could be days or weeks of on-site reviews. County and air district staff will observe operations and review refinery documentation, including maintenance and training records.

Separately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the FBI have separate inquiries into possible civil and criminal violations of the Clean Air Act stemming from the November 2022 incident and Martinez residents have sued the company.

Separately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the FBI have separate inquiries into possible civil and criminal violations of the Clean Air Act stemming from the November 2022 incident and Martinez residents have sued the company.

Amaya Edwards/The Chronicle

Problems at the facility have appeared to snowball since Thanksgiving last year when there were series of issues with its fluidized catalytic cracking unit, commonly called a cat cracker. 

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The unit began spewing spent catalyst — a mixture of alumina silicate with lesser amounts of heavy metals including barium, chromium, nickel, vanadium and zinc — into the air Thanksgiving night. But refinery officials failed to alert county health regulators, regional air regulators or the public about the problem, a requirement under local laws.

The most recent issues involve a series of incidents the weekend of Dec. 17, when black smoke spewed from the facility. The company reported the incident as a grass fire, but county officials on Tuesday said the company’s description was incomplete. 

Kaufmann said the fire was ignited when liquid hydrocarbons spilled from one of the company’s low-to-the-ground flaring stacks.

“The facility initially told us it was a grass fire, as opposed to letting us know that there was flaring that caused the grass fire,” Kaufmann said. 

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Kaufmann said the county is concerned about PBF Energy’s public response to these incidents over the last year. The company didn’t respond to the Chronicle’s questions about the county’s complaints about accuracy. 

Reach Julie Johnson: julie.johnson@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @juliejohnson



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