Martinez Residents Say Tell Me More (and More) About Refinery Incidents; How Many Oversight Committee Members Can See MRC from their House?; MPD to Get New Body Cams
Plus, Martinez resident details the pothole from hell as city gives update on efforts to fix its roads; and the lowdown on the huge dirt pile at Pine Meadow
Lots to cover in this edition of News and Views, so let’s get right to it.
Remember the lyrics from the hit song “Summer Nights” by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in “Grease” that go “Tell me more, tell me more”? They pretty much sum up the gist of what residents told the City Council and county health officials on Wednesday during the council’s study session on the Community Warning System (CWS).
That point was hammered home when county officials made clear that the majority of alerts issued through the CWS don’t result in direct contact to residents through phone calls, emails and text messages, let alone the activation of sirens and shelter-in-place orders. Rather, Level 1 and Level 2 alerts trigger some combination of notices through county websites, social media platforms and alerts to local news media outlets (and we all know how much coverage Martinez gets from traditional media outlets these days).
The issue has been front and center in Martinez since the Thanksgiving night “spent catalyst” release by the Martinez Refining Co. (MRC) that blanketed surrounding neighborhoods with a toxic dust, followed by a spate of flaring and other incidents at the refinery in the months since.
“Most of us would rather have overcommunication. I want to be able to trust that if something is happening, I will hear about it,” one resident said during a lengthy public comment period.
“I’m on the team that says that too much notification is a good thing, and we should be notified,” another chimed in.
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Much has been made in recent months about the failure of MRC officials to alert public health authorities about the “spent catalyst” release (Contra Costa Health Services first learned about the accident through community social media posts). But one revelation from Wednesday’s session seemed to be that even had MRC reported the release and activated the Community Warning System, there would have been no direct alerts to nearby residents about potential health risks. Rather, as a “Level 2” alert indicating potential offsite health consequences for sensitive populations, Contra Costa Health would have issued notifications through its regular internet and social media platforms as well as notified local media outlets (only slightly different from the outreach that exists for the more common “Level 1” alerts where no offsite health impacts are anticipated).
After Mayor Brianne Zorn asked county officials to describe exactly what would have happened had the CWS been activated on Thanksgiving night when the metal-laden dust began spreading over homes, hazardous materials division chief Nicole Heath said, “This would have not resulted in a shelter in place, there would have not been sirens, but it would have resulted in information put out through the community.”
Later in the meeting, County Health Officer Dr. Ori Tzvieli confirmed that “this release obviously had an immediate health risk, the dust that was in the air.”
Yet, it’s only the most serious alert level, 3, that triggers the types of notifications that many of us commonly associate with the CWS: automated phone calls, emails and text messages, the activation of sirens, and the loud Amber Alert-style cellphone alarms. A Level 3 alert is triggered when offsite health impacts to the general public are anticipated.
Though none of the recent refinery incidents rose to a Level 3, officials noted that only landline phone numbers are automatically registered to receive phone calls with shelter-in-place or other guidance in such a situation. Those who want to receive calls or texts via their cellphones, or email messages, need to register those phone numbers with the Community Warning System.
County health officials made clear at the study session that they are evaluating possible changes to the CWS to make it more robust and, in the words of county Health CEO Anna Roth, “ensure improvements are in place going forward.”
At the same time, the city, led by new police Chief Andrew White, is collaborating with the county on ways that it can play a more active role in communicating Level 1 and Level 2 incidents with the public, without creating unnecessary duplication and potential for confusion. White said the city wants to leverage the CWS system to be able to send text message alerts directly to residents for these lower-level incidents and that the effort remains a “work in progress”; he said he plans to meet with county officials on the matter again in the coming week.
A few other items of note that came out of the meeting (which can be viewed here).
Heath said the newly constituted oversight committee investigating the spent catalyst release is prioritizing an initial soil risk assessment to determine what, if any, health concerns may exist from the dust falling into gardens where produce is grown. In response to resident questions on the safety of soil affected by the release, Tzvieli said he agreed with the need to be cautious about eating or planting fruits and vegetables in impacted areas “until we know what’s in the soil.”
Heath also explained that it is the responsibility of the refinery (or similar industrial operations) to activate a CWS alert when incidents occur because “the facility has the best information upon release to make these determinations.” Once an alert is triggered, hazardous materials workers will respond to confirm the release or threatened release and update public health notifications as needed.
Given the number of recent flaring incidents, Heath also provided a good tutorial (I liken it to “Flaring for Dummies”) on what exactly these events are and why they occur. She compared a refinery flare to an “Instant Pot” in cooking where a safety value is needed to release temperatures and pressure in the pot that have risen to unsafe levels. “If you just opened your Instant Pot, there would be grave consequences,” she said. She explained that refineries typically “reclaim” gases during the refining process and and reuse them in operations, but when something falls out of balance (due to an equipment malfunction, unit shutdown or processing problem), the gases are released via flaring. She also said that not all flares are created equal in terms of pollutants, with some being clean-burning (emitting primarily carbon dioxide and water) and others, due to “incomplete combustion,” emitting visible, black smoke filled with much more dangerous gases such as carbon monoxide. Although the large Dec. 9 flaring at the refinery that sent towering flames into the night sky caused considerable community alarm, Heath said it was actually “a very large clean-burning flare.” Finally, she noted that in some cases, black smoke will initially be released through flaring before dissipating during the combustion process.
Oversight Committee begins its work
A day after the study session, the county’s new MRC Oversight Committee tasked with investigating the Nov. 24-25 spent catalyst incident got down to business, holding its first meeting (watch the video and find out more here). I haven’t had a chance to review the meeting yet but hope to have an update for you sometime next week.
One question I already have, however, involves the selection process for the five “community” members that were chosen by county Supervisor Federal Glover’s Office (with some input from Mayor Brianne Zorn). I researched the addresses of the five members, and if what I found on the internet is correct, four of the five live south of Highway 4. I used an internet mapping tool to look up how far each address is from the official address of the refinery (3485 Pacheco Blvd.) as “the crow flies.” The closest address was 0.7 mile from the refinery, clearly in close enough proximity to be directly affected by flaring and incidents such as the spent catalyst release. But the other four addresses ranged from 1.9 miles to 3.4 miles from the refinery (granted, the refinery is a sprawling facility, and some of these addresses may be closer to or further from specific sections of the refinery, but based on the maps I reviewed, I wouldn’t consider any of these four residences to be “neighbors” of MRC).
Remember the old Sarah Palin line, “I can see Russia from my house”? Well, many residents who are directly impacted by the refinery’s operations, and found toxic dust covering their cars the day after Thanksgiving, can see the refinery from theirs (below is the view from my house, though, thankfully, I didn’t encounter any of the infamous dust). It’s odd, to say the least, that community members who were most directly impacted by the incident in question (more than 50 residents in total applied for the committee) may have been left off in favor of those who live on the other side of town.
The view of the Martinez Refining Company from my house
I have sent an inquiry to Glover’s office asking whether proximity to the refinery was a major consideration in choosing members (and, if not, why not). Zorn told me via email on Sunday that she focused her recommendations on finding a diverse mix of candidates: those who were directly impacted by the Thanksgiving incident, as well as others who could bring unique perspectives and skills to the investigation, including people both with and without scientific and refinery backgrounds.
My two cents: I think the county erred by not restricting the applicant pool to those who are actual “neighbors” of the refinery (living within a roughly 1-mile radius of its boundaries) and who either dealt directly with the impacts of this incident, or who deal more generally with the reality of living next to a major petroleum refinery on a daily basis. This is not to question the commitment or qualifications of the members who were chosen, and I have no reason to doubt the work they will do in getting to the bottom of what happened and why. But those of us who have lived in the shadow of the refinery for any period of time know full well that we face risks and concerns very different from residents on the other side of Highway 4. And with only five members of the refinery “community” able to serve on this important committee, I think the focus should have been on selecting people who are most impacted by MRC’s presence and accidents of this kind.
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MPD to get new body-worn, in-car cameras
Remember in the early 2010s when everyone seemed to be upgrading to cool new smartphones while others were still getting by with their antiquated Blackberrys?
The presentation at Wednesday’s council meeting by new police Chief Andrew White about the department’s need for technologically advanced body cameras brought those images to mind. White described a department that was late to the body cam party to begin with and is currently equipped with ones far inferior to what is standard in neighboring departments.
White told the council it’s a topic that’s come up regularly in his early conversations with MPD’s rank and file.
“They feel they’ve been given subpar equipment by the city,” he said. “It doesn’t adequately capture the information they need it to. They’ve run into issues with things not being recorded. It’s come up literally in every single one-on-one I’ve had with the sworn staff.”
The council was receptive to White’s request, approving a five-year agreement with Axon Enterprise Inc. to purchase the state-of-the-art cameras, both body worn and, for the first time, in-camera, and accompanying software (first-year cost is $75,601) — but not before engaging in a lengthy, and at times highly technical, discussion about the capabilities of the cameras and the protocols for using them in use-of-force incidents as well as the collection of evidence. At times, the council members and public (including myself) struggled to understand the mechanisms by which the cameras operate, the circumstances under which they are deployed automatically or manually, and the discretion officers have to turn them off or mute audio. White walked council members and the public through the various technical issues as well as applicable city and state laws governing the use of cameras and storage of video.
One thing that was made crystal clear throughout, however, was that the department’s current camera equipment does not meet the standards of policing in 2023, in terms of capability, transparency, accountability and evidence collection. The new cameras will feature several automated capabilities for recording and storing video, including when a taser is withdrawn or when emergency lights are activated by a patrol car.
Although the use of body cameras has been a sensitive topic in policing for some time, White said his force is fully on board with their use. Councilman Mark Ross, addressing a question I asked in public comment about why the city was so slow to adopt body cams in the first place, said that when the issue was first discussed several years ago, the cost for storage of video was exorbitant, in the range of $150,000. “It was shocking,” said Ross, saying storage costs amounted to 90% of the reason for the city’s delay in adopting the technology.
“I do know that (support for body cameras) was not unanimous with the force at the time, five, seven, eight years ago,” he said. “That gradually changed as the force changed.”
Councilman Satinder Malhi, who asked several questions about the technology and capabilities of the cameras and the manner in which officers could activate or disable them, said, “I don’t want the conversation to end here. I think this is something we should revisit. We’re going to need to have an ongoing conversation.”
The paving goes on thanks to Measure D
The council got an update on the city’s five-year program to repave its road network with funds from the Measure D sales tax passed in 2016. In the years since, the city has resurfaced 55.7 centerline miles out of 121 total centerline mile (or 46% of its total pavement network). As a result, Martinez’s Pavement Condition Index (PCI) has risen from a score of 51 (poor) in 2015 to 69 (fair) today.
But, as one resident pointed out, many streets remain in very poor condition, to put it mildly. She painted a harrowing picture of the condition of Miller Avenue:
“It’s really, really, really bad. It’s covered in potholes; the cars speed up so that they don’t fall into them. You can hear the cars rattling up the street. We had an incident where we were pulling two toddlers up the street in a baby wagon and it fell into the pothole and the babies tumbled down the hill. It’s actually kind of a crisis.”
Further discussion revealed that Miller Avenue isn’t scheduled to be rehabbed until 2025. “That doesn’t mean we can’t take note and go out and fill the baby death trap hole (sooner),” said Councilman Mark Ross, a Realtor who sold the resident in question the home a few years ago. “It has an uneven surface for a variety of reasons. It has concrete over asphalt, which is unusual, and the concrete chips away and creates an odd surface. If we can have someone go out there and just take a look at it.”
What’s up at Pine Meadow (including that dirt pile)
The council voted to allocate $200,000 in American Rescue Plan funds toward reimbursing DeNova Homes for design costs of the new public park planned for the old Pine Meadow golf course, the subject of a nearly decade-long legal battle involving the city, developer and open space advocates (or as I like to call it, “Martinez’s long city nightmare”). As part of an agreement with DeNova for the park project, the city is required to reimburse DeNova for design costs in excess of $150,000. DeNova is responsible for spending $1 million total ($850,000 for construction, $150,000 for design services) toward the project, with the city on the hook for the rest (the current budget estimate for the project is $2.57 million).
During the council discussion, City Manager Michael Chandler put to rest concerns around the fate of a conspicuously large dirt pile at the project site that has generated multiple inquiries from the community (“The Dirt Pile” sounds like it could have been an episode from the popular sitcom “Parks and Recreation”).
This large dirt pile at Pine Meadow has generated multiple inquiries to City Hall.
“The rough grading of the entire site, including removal of that surplus stockpile of dirt, is already included in the site development permitted bond, so that will be addressed and hopefully will allay people’s concerns about it,” he said.
In other words, the dirt pile will be dealt with in due course.
As far as the timeline for completing the park, engineering consultant Randy Leptien said, “Including the design, our hope would be to get it up in a year.”
The full council meeting can be viewed here.
Waterfront Workshop is Wednesday
Just a reminder that the next community workshop to discuss plans for the waterfront and marina is Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. on Zoom. According to the waterfront website: “Several alternative concepts for the waterfront that combine the themes and ideas from prior workshops will be presented to solicit feedback on the relative merits for each alternative.” I discussed the most recent City Council meeting on the waterfront, in which council members listed their top priorities, in this post. Those interested in attending Wednesday’s workshop can register here.