MARTINEZ – Health officials said a Martinez oil refinery released potentially hazardous materials over Thanksgiving and that they were not immediately notified about the incident.
Contra Costa Health (CCH) said Wednesday that the Martinez Refining Company (MRC) accidentally released "spent catalyst" beginning around 9:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving and continuing into the early morning hours of Friday.
Despite being required by law to notify CCH and the county's Community Warning System, health officials said they were not notified when the release took place. The department said their HazMat team learned about the release Saturday morning after community members near the refinery complained about white dust on surfaces.
"MRC's failure to follow notification procedure cost us critical time we could have used to warn the public and reduce health risks in the community. It's unacceptable," Deputy Health Director Matt Kaufmann said in a statement.
In an amended 72-hour report regarding the incident, the refinery told health officials that it is investigating why they were not notified.
Samples by CCH taken near the refinery found "higher than normal" levels of heavy metals, including aluminum, barium, chromium, nickel, vanadium and zinc.
Officials said Wednesday that they do not believe there is an immediate risk to the community and that the most significant health risks were short-term respiratory impacts from breathing in metals in the hours after the incident.
Exposures to high concentration of the metals over a long period of time could cause more serious health problems, officials said.
"We are concerned for people's health anytime they are exposed to toxic metals," said health officer Dr. Ori Tzvieli.
Health officials said the refinery initially told the community that its own testing suggested the materials from the release were non-toxic and that the company offered free carwash vouchers.
Officials said anyone exposed to the material from the refinery who is experiencing coughing, sore throat or difficulty breathing should contact their healthcare provider.
The agency's investigation is ongoing.
"Our goal going forward is to make sure something like this doesn't happen again." Tzvieli said.
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