Two Martinez residents filed a proposed class action lawsuit against Martinez Refining Company, alleging the refinery has created a "public nuisance" by releasing chemicals into the surrounding community.
Martinez residents Alena Cruz and Shannon Payne filed the suit Tuesday in Contra Costa County Superior Court against the Martinez Refining Company LLC, PBF Energy Inc., and PBF Energy Western Region LLC.
Joe Cotchett, a partner at the law firm representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement, "After years of obfuscation and secrecy surrounding the refinery, finally the federal government, including the FBI is looking into this extremely concerning situation."
On Thanksgiving night in 2022, the refinery released an estimated 20 to 24 tons of "spent catalyst" into the surrounding community until the following morning, when residents found their yards and vehicles covered in metallic dust.
The refinery failed to alert the county health department and the community warning system, both of which are legally mandated within 15 minutes of a release.
County health officials didn't find out about the release until the following Saturday when alerted to social media posts about the dust. Initial testing of the Thanksgiving release showed the dust contained elevated levels of aluminum, barium, chromium, nickel, vanadium and zinc, all of which can cause respiratory problems.
Since the Thanksgiving release, there's been at least three smaller releases of "coke dust" since July. Coke dust is a byproduct of oil refining. The first release, on July 11, lasted less than a minute and created steam with coke dust, which was carried into the community by wind.
The second release was on July 22 and was contained on-site. The third release happened Oct. 6 and was termed by refinery officials as "brief" in a unit that has since been taken offline. Nevertheless, all three incidents are still being investigated. The Thanksgiving 2022 release is being investigated by the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office.
Lead plaintiff Cruz said in a statement that she removed her vegetable garden, fearing the soil was contaminated.
"They never say what the problems are and what they are doing to correct them," Cruz said. "We are afraid of what this dust is potentially doing to our children and their health, we don't even know if it could cause cancer."
An MRC spokesperson said Wednesday the company doesn't comment on pending litigation.
The refinery has publicly apologized to the city, saying it wasn't aware of any public impact until the day after the Thanksgiving release and that it's taken corrective actions to make sure similar releases don't happen in the future.
The suit asks MRC to pay for medical monitoring expenses for affected individuals to ensure that any potential negative health effects from the toxic releases are identified and treated.
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