Will the year of accidents change the aging industry?

Will the year of accidents change the aging industry?

At 12:42 a.m., what appears to be an ignition occurred at the Martinez Refinery in Martinez, California, on Saturday, September 23, 2023. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

On Friday morning, Contra Costa County Public Health warned residents of a new arson incident at the Martinez Refinery. The agency said that unidentified chemical odors in the air could be linked to the event, and that “eye, skin, nose, or throat irritation may be possible for some people in the affected area.”

Martinez’s public health warning came exactly one week after a distinct smell of burning tires wafted into the air surrounding the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond. More than a hundred local residents, disturbed by the stench, reported it to the local air quality agency.

Both incidents, while by no means the most dramatic, were unfortunate incidents in a long year of refinery accidents and abuses in the East Bay industrial cluster that constitute something of a refinery dispute.

Refineries have long been part of the Gulf region’s economic and energy ecosystem. Many have been around for over a hundred years and still serve as a large tax base for cities and a source of reliable union jobs. This is not the first year that refineries have caught fire, nor is it the first year that accidents have occurred at the facilities.

In November, an employee suffered third-degree burns covering most of his body after a fire broke out at the Marathon Petroleum refinery in Martinez, the second fire that month. A power outage at the Chevron refinery, also in November, caused a massive plume of black smoke to rise outside the facility for hours. For 13 months, Martinez Refining, owned by oil giant PBF Energy, has scattered coke dust and spent catalysts containing heavy metals over the surrounding town, including a high-profile incident on the day after Thanksgiving last year that brought… Fresh from the chaos. The level of interest in the refinery accidents and another came just hours before the local high school’s homecoming parade in the spring.

After investigating the odor on December 8, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District determined that Chevron’s bioreactor was responsible. The agency issued a public nuisance notice for Chevron’s violation, the 35th violation this year and the second in two weeks.

As the region and nation plan to transition to clean energy, some advocates wonder if these high-profile accidents are the last gasp of a dying industry that will try to make as much profit as possible before it disappears.

“Companies want to put not only local communities but their workers at risk for profit,” said Jacob Klein, organizing director for the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Sierra Club. “Community safety and worker safety does not appear to be their priority.”

As a result of recent accidents, several agencies have begun investigations into safety practices at refineries. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office, the Environmental Protection Agency and even the FBI are conducting ongoing investigations. Martinez residents filed a class action lawsuit against Martinez Refining Company over its chemical releases.

As the calendar moves toward January, Bay Area community advocates are determined not to do the same thing again next year. Instead, they aim to build on the activism that grew after the Thanksgiving incident to create lasting change in the relationship between refineries and the community.

“With all of these unfortunate incidents affecting more and more people, more and more people are being educated and educating themselves about these issues,” said Heidi Taylor, a member of Healthy Martinez, a local watchdog group that emerged in the wake of the spending incidents. Catalyst release. He added: “We have not necessarily seen solutions that bear fruit, but I think there is hope on the horizon.”

According to the Regional Air Quality District, the number of gas flaring incidents nearly doubled last year, the most since 2019. This trend has been increasing in the past five years. This rise has led some observers to question whether these century-old refineries have reached the end of their life cycle.

“All the dangerous, antiquated refineries in the Gulf region are about 125 years old,” said Shosanna Wilcher, an organizer with the Sunflower Alliance and Refinery Transitions group. “It is time to decommission them and remediate the contaminated lands they occupy for safer, cleaner uses.”

The Martinez refinery said in a statement that it remains committed to obtaining the right to work in Martinez.

When asked to comment for this story, Martinez Refinery issued a statement saying: “We have apologized to our neighbors for not fulfilling this commitment. We have implemented corrective actions, continue to cooperate with all government agencies, and have strengthened our communications with our neighbors and government officials.”

Meanwhile, a Chevron spokesman said the air district often provides notices of violations in batches, sometimes issued years after they actually occur. They noted that due to modernization efforts and investments in new technologies, particulate matter emissions have fallen by 36% since 2018, and gas flaring events have decreased in the past two years.

“Chevron places the highest priority on protecting employees, communities and the environment, and continually works to enhance the safety of our operations,” said Caitlin Powell, external communications advisor for Chevron Richmond.

In a presentation to the Martinez City Council in October, refinery manager Daniel Ingram positioned the company as a critical player in California’s energy economy, manufacturing 20% ​​of the Bay Area’s gasoline supply and 40% of the region’s jet fuel. Although refineries contribute significantly to air pollution in the Bay Area, it is not the highest — automobiles and wildfires are the largest contributors to overall pollution in the region, according to the air district.

But for some, refineries across the region are a symbol of the country’s slow transition away from fossil fuels. This creates some cognitive dissonance, as California may shape the future of clean energy as refineries around the Gulf continue to refine oil for foreign markets.

“We may all end up driving Teslas and refineries creating more pollution and blowing up our communities,” said Greg Karas, a refinery transformation consultant. “This is a possible future.”

However, for community advocates, this is just one of many possible outcomes. The other future is one in which increased public scrutiny and oversight prevent the types of accidents and launches that occurred this year.

“If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that nothing happens overnight,” Taylor said. “But I believe the cumulative pressure will bring about a new era, and I am here for that.”

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