Refinery Emissions, Safety and Lawsuit Take Center Stage at City Council Meeting
What to know in debate over wet gas scrubbers. Also, county Board of Supervisors reverses decision on 2024 vice chair after controversy; Planning Commission to take up waterfront/marina plan Tuesday
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By Tom Lochner
MARTINEZ — The Martinez Refining Co. and its mishap-blemished operating record over the past 12 months occupied the main portion of Wednesday’s Martinez City Council meeting.
It began with a council proclamation "Urging the Martinez Refining Company to Comply with Regional Air Emissions Standards" — more specifically, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District's July 2021 amendment to its Regulation 6-5 that tightens the limit on the concentration of small particles in refinery emissions.
Mayor Brianne Zorn, surrounded by council members, from left, Jay Howard, Mark Ross, Debbie McKillop and Satinder Malhi, reads the refinery air emissions proclamation at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.
Martinez residents are exposed to some 300 tons per year of PM2.5 — small particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns (thousandths of a millimeter) or less — from MRC’s fluid catalytic cracker, which "may cause severe long-term health impacts, including asthma, heart disease and impaired cognitive function," according to the proclamation.
Two months after the so-called "Rule 6-5 Amendment" passed, MRC sued to have it overturned, declaring it cost-prohibitive and unfeasible, among other criticisms. Chevron, which owns and operates a refinery in Richmond, filed a similar suit.
Many among an audience of about 50 people whooped in approval as Mayor Brianne Zorn concluded the council's reading of the proclamation.
(The next hearing date in Contra Costa Superior Court, listed as Oct. 23 in the written proclamation, has been rescheduled to Dec. 21, Zorn announced during the reading).
Later in the meeting, during a PowerPoint presentation, refinery manager Daniel Ingram talked about MRC's mission, which, he said, is to "manufacture products that help make modern life possible" while operating "safely, reliably and in an environmentally responsible manner"; and providing employees with a safe and rewarding workplace. At least three other refinery officials were in attendance.
Ingram addressed a series of incidents at MRC that began with the Nov. 24-25 spent catalyst release that spewed between 20 and 24 tons of toxic, metal-laden dust on surrounding communities; the refinery did not alert authorities and did not trigger the Community Warning System (CWS), saying later it only found out about the release the day after it began when a resident notified it. Ingram also discussed coke dust releases at the refinery on July 11, July 22 and Oct. 6; those incidents were deemed Level 1 on the CWS scale, the lowest of three levels, meaning no off-site health consequences are expected.
He said the refinery has completed 11 "corrective actions" and that other such actions are underway or scheduled in the near future. Two of the corrective actions involved controls; six dealt with procedures; three involved training, Ingram said. He singled out manual controls as problematic, and said that with automated controls "we could have prevented some of the reasons why we ultimately had the spent catalyst release."
Ingram also talked about MRC's "Goal Zero Safety Program," which aims to "enhance employee and contractor engagement and increase safety awareness and hazard recognition.
"We sincerely apologize to our neighbors and community for these incidents," the presentation reads near its conclusion. "We remain committed to achieving safe, reliable and environmentally responsible operations. We know we must earn the right to operate in our Martinez community and are disappointed we have failed to do that."
Some of the people watching Wednesday's meeting appeared to have a problem reconciling the refinery's latest mea culpa with its ongoing lawsuit.
"Please spare us your apologies and promises to do better tonight, and answer our demands with actions," said resident Heidi Taylor, a member of Healthy Martinez Refinery Accountability Group, formed in the aftermath of the Nov. 24-25 incident.
"MRC is not a good neighbor," Taylor said, speaking during the public comment period. "You are a public nuisance."
Shoshana Wechsler, a member of the climate and environmental justice organization Sunflower Alliance, speaking via Zoom, said compliance with the Rule 6-5 amendment would substantially reduce "deadly particulate matter" and that "in real life, this means far healthier lives and far fewer deaths from air pollution.
"In our view, it is simply unconscionable that both refineries (MRC and Chevron) chose to sue BAAQMD rather than begin the effort of compliance with this life-saving regulation," Wechsler continued, citing information contained in the council proclamation that MRC is responsible for releasing 300 tons of small particles every year.
There are five refineries in the Bay Area — the other four are the Marathon refinery in Martinez, which recently transformed itself into a biofuels facility; Chevron in Richmond; Phillips 66 in Rodeo; and Valero in Benicia.
MRC says it produces about 20 percent of the Bay Area's gasoline supply and about 40 percent of its jet fuel, in addition to diesel fuel and other petroleum products. Responding to a question from Councilman Satinder Malhi about his view of the refinery's future, and whether it plans to shift from fossil fuels to renewables, Ingram said MRC intends to remain a conventional refinery.
BAAQMD passed its Rule 6-5 amendment on July 21, 2021. It limits emission of particulate matter at fluidized catalytic cracking units — the type of unit where the Nov. 24-25 release at MRC occurred —to 0.01 grains per dry standard cubic foot, or 0.01 gr/dscf. The 0.01 standard is supposed to be achieved by July 2026.
In September 2021, MRC sued in Contra Costa Superior Court, as did Chevron.
A main issue in the dispute is a device called a wet gas scrubber (WGS), which uses a scrubbing liquid (mostly water) to remove solid particles from refinery gas emissions. Although BAAQMD does not specifically mandate wet gas scrubbers in its Rule 6-5 amendment, it has hailed the device as effective in reducing emissions of small particles in fluidized catalytic cracking units. The air district considers wet gas scrubbers an example of Best Available Retrofit Control Technology (BARCT).
MRC currently uses electrostatic precipitators, a less-effective technology that uses electric charges to remove particles from emissions.
WGS is hardly a new, untested technology. Four of the six refineries nationwide owned by MRC's parent company, PBF Energy, are equipped with WGS: in Delaware City, Delaware; Chalmette, Louisiana; Paulsboro, New Jersey; and Toledo, Ohio. PBF's other California refinery, in Torrance, does not have WGS; like MRC, it uses electrostatic precipitators.
Nationwide, as of 2020, there were 93 WGSs, MRC/PBF spokesman Brandon Matson said in a July 21 email. In the Bay Area, Valero Benicia is equipped with the technology.
Besides its objection to the Rule 6-5 amendment, MRC/PBF disputes the effectiveness of wet gas scrubbers, saying that BAAQMD has been selective in its documentation of their efficiency, by sourcing its data based on WGS-equipped refineries with the best test results.
In its suit, MRC says that "installation of a WGS is technically infeasible given the lack of available space" at the Martinez refinery. As Matson explained in his July 21 email:
"Physical space for a WGS simply does not exist (at MRC). There is no scenario in which it is technically feasible and/or cost-effective for MRC to demolish and relocate existing process equipment in the FCC (Fluidized Catalytic Cracking) area to make room for a WGS. Even if MRC were able to redesign the FCC process block to install a WGS, construction access is severely constrained by technical limitations and the refinery configuration such that MRC would be unable to accomplish the installation."
Also, according to Matson, WGSs use "enormous" amounts of water, and a lot of electricity to move it, as well as natural gas "due to the massive heaters needed to mitigate visual impacts from any WGS plume."
"At MRC’s refinery alone, assuming a WGS could be utilized (which it cannot, due to space restrictions), a WGS would result in an estimated annual water demand increase of 250 million gallons (about 684,000 gallons/day), and even this estimate includes only makeup water to the WGS, to replace the volume lost to evaporation," his email continued. "This massive water use is wasteful and pays little consideration to California’s recurring droughts."
The required extra electricity, Matson said, "would increase demand on an increasingly strained electricity grid, with a corresponding increase in air pollution … related to power generation (along with the related greenhouse gas impacts).” Moreover, "WGSs emit massive visible plumes, which would impact the scenic views of the community."
MRC has proposed an alternative standard of 0.02 gr/dscf —double the 0.01 standard of BAAQMD's Rule 6-5 amendment — which, it contends in its lawsuit, "would achieve significant TPM (Total Particulate Matter) reductions while avoiding the significant costs and environmental impacts of the district's BARCT determination."
In its suit, MRC also contends that the air district ignores a variety of California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and Health and Safety Code requirements, among other alleged missteps.
In response, BAAQMD provides information purporting to demonstrate it is in full compliance with CEQA, Health and Safety, and other government codes, rebutting in detail many technicalities raised by the plaintiffs.
In its response, filed with the court on July 21, BAAQMD also contends that while the costs of meeting the 0.01 standard would be high, refineries would likely recover them with a gasoline price increase of just 2 cents per gallon. It also notes that "the refinery located just next-door" (Valero Benicia) uses WGS technology and meets the 0.01 standard.
BAAQMD also says it thoroughly analyzed the cost-effectiveness, socioeconomic impacts, environmental impacts, and health benefits of both the 0.01 and 0.02 standards.
The air district also states that the Bay Area suffers from high levels of PM pollution, posing a severe public health risk; that a steady stream of scientific research shows the 0.02 standard envisioned by the plaintiffs is inadequate; and that state Assembly Bill 617 directs it to adopt more stringent particulate regulations for major sources of pollution, such as refineries.
The council proclamation is at https://legistarweb-production.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/attachment/pdf/2229421/Proclamation_-_Refinery_Air_Emissions.pdf
The refinery's PowerPoint presentation is at https://legistarweb-production.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/attachment/pdf/2230028/MRC_Presentation_October_18_2023.pdf
The following items were written by Craig Lazzeretti
Reversal by Board of Supervisors
The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to reverse its controversial Oct. 3 appointment of Ken Carlson as vice chair for 2024, which would have allowed him to skip over the board’s two women.
Carlson brought back the item to the board after a heated debate ahead of the Oct. 3 vote that then spilled over to social media, with Supervisors Candace Andersen and Diane Burgis complaining that they were being marginalized as women, and that the districts they represent were being denied their normal turns in the rotation for the vice chair and chair positions.
As a result of Tuesday’s unanimous vote, Andersen will serve as vice chair in 2024 and be in line to chair the board again in 2025; her last turn as board chair was in 2020.
Carlson’s predecessor as the District IV representative, Karen Mitchoff, served as board chair in 2022, her final year on the board. If Carlson had been allowed to serve as vice chair in 2024, he would have been in line to be chair in 2025 — giving that district the chair’s role twice before Andersen’s District II and Burgis’ District III had gotten the opportunity again. Federal Glover, whose District V encompasses Martinez, will serve as board chair in 2024.
It’s speculated that Glover will not run for re-election in 2024, and several people have already announced candidacies for that position.
The issue of equal district representation in board leadership positions was a major theme of Tuesday’s discussion, including by Carlson himself, who made the motion to rescind his appointment and name Andersen vice chair in 2024. In their comments, Burgis and Andersen also emphasized the importance of their districts getting their turn in the leadership rotation.
“It’s about equity for all the districts,” Burgis said.
On Oct. 3, current board chair John Gioia of District I, along with Carlson and Glover, justified the vote to have Carlson leapfrog Andersen and Burgis in the rotation because of a pattern over the past two decades of often allowing newly elected supervisors to move into the leadership rotation in their second or third year in office, with an opportunity to chair the board before the end of their first term — though Burgis was not given that opportunity upon her election in 2016. Gioia also touted the significance of Carlson, the first openly gay board member, holding a leadership position on the Board of Supervisors, saying the time had come for the LGBTQ+ community to have such representation.
Carlson, who is serving his first year on the board after being elected in 2022, apologized for the ill will his Oct. 3 vote to make himself vice chair had engendered.
“It’s never been, never will be, my intention, in any work I do but here at the board specifically, to make anyone feel marginalized,” he said. “I know what that feels like.”
Although Tuesday’s discussion was largely magnanimous, some tension clearly remained as the supervisors tried to justify their original positions and rehashed some of the same arguments that had been raised Oct. 3, when tempers flared.
Gioia, a longtime champion of progressive causes, also made clear that he took offense to accusations of misogyny that surfaced from the Oct. 3 vote, calling them “totally out of bounds” and pointing to previous cases during his tenure on the board where he supported moving women members up in the rotation, in one case ahead of himself.
But Andersen said previous changes to the normal rotation schedule were made with the assent of all board members and not forced on those directly affected by the change. She also reiterated that she had felt marginalized by what had occurred two weeks earlier.
“It was the totality of the circumstances that did make me, as a woman, feel marginalized and feel that this was more than just a political decision — which troubled me that we were even having it be a political decision.”
She added that she looked forward to “Ken continuing to be recognized for his status as the first openly gay member of this board, and I’m hoping that all that we’ve been through is going to lead to much more positive ways of communicating, where none of us feel marginalized, where all of us feel that we are equals as supervisors…”
For his part, Carlson focused on the importance of the board healing any divisions that resulted from the Oct. 3 fray, saying that “right now across this country … we’ve seen what political polarization can do and how it impacts the work that we actually can get accomplished, and I think it’s very important that we are better than that. Really, it’s about the work.”
Waterfront Marina Trust Use Plan
The long and winding road to adopting a much-awaited and anticipated blueprint for remaking the waterfront and marina reaches another pivotal point Tuesday as the Planning Commission holds a public hearing and considers recommending City Council approval of the Waterfront Marina Trust Use Plan.
Assuming that the commission forwards the plan to the City Council and the council adopts it, the final step will be for the State Lands Commission to grant final approval. At that point, the city can begin the multi-year (likely multi-decade) process of implementing the various facets, which range from upgrading the marina and piers to enhancing recreational opportunities, drinking and dining options, and even perhaps a connection to the San Francisco Bay ferry network. The full draft plan can be viewed at this link.
Tuesday’s meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the City Hall Council Chamber and will also be accessible via Zoom. Click this link to view the full agenda with information on how to attend remotely.
Martinez School Board meets Monday
The Martinez Unified School District Board of Trustees will hold a regular meeting on Monday starting at 6:30 p.m. The agenda includes student recognition of the Alhambra High homecoming festivities and Martinez Junior High’s New Leaf Garden; updates on district enrollment and attendance trends; an update on the district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP); and permanently increasing the pay rate for substitute teachers in the district.
The regular meeting will be preceded by a study session/governance workshop at 4:30 p.m. Both meetings will be held at the district offices, 921 Susana St.