Civil Grand Jury Wants Better Public Notifications From Refineries

The Contra Costa County Civil Grand Jury made recommendations concerning the response when hazardous materials are released from county industrial chemical processing facilities like the Chevron Richmond refinery.

By Ruth Dusseault
Bay City News

Right now, Contra Costa County residents can go to a website and opt-in to receive text or email notifications if hazardous materials are released from the county’s nine industrial chemical processing facilities.

The inverse of that would be for the county’s Health Services Hazardous Materials Program, or HazMat, to include everybody’s cell phone in the warning system, and then give people the choice to opt-out.

An opt-out notification system is one recommendation included in a recent report by the Contra Costa County Civil Grand Jury, an oversight panel of 19 citizen volunteers who investigate county governmental issues and concerns. Other suggestions include expanding the types of notifications that go to the public and hiring additional response staff.

From November 2022 to December 2023, the four petroleum refineries in the county notified HazMat of 247 releases, the report said. These included flares, fires and spills. When an incident occurs, the HazMat office must be notified by the refinery. HazMat calls the facility to find out what happened and may send five or six staff technicians to do an on-site investigation.

The jury found some weaknesses in the county’s ability to evaluate the relative danger of such incidents and how to issue solid guidance to the public if they should need to act.

The report found that only 30% of county residents have registered with Contra Costa County’s Community Warning System, or CWS, which is administered through the Emergency Services Division of the Sheriff’s Office.

The jury suggested that all cell phone numbers of county residents be automatically added to the CWS. As permitted by state law, cell phone contact data for county residents could be acquired from public and private agencies. Residents can then opt-out if they choose.

Currently, the CWS does not notify the public of hazardous materials releases that are not expected to have off-site health consequences, defined as Level One.

Citing a survey conducted by Contra Costa Health Services in 2023, the report noted that approximately 87% of the respondents indicated they would like to receive direct information regarding Level One incidents, via text or emails. Of the 560 respondents, primarily in Martinez, Pittsburg and Richmond, 79.5% said they would like the ability to select how they are notified for each type of incident — fires, chemical spills, smoke, leaks, odors and flaring.

The report also found that the current staffing structure used by HazMat to respond to hazardous material releases is not as effective as it should be. In addition to hiring three new supervisory staff positions, the jury suggested that a toxicologist be placed on retainer. Having a toxicologist on hand could reduce the delay in the public’s understanding of any potential health impacts from a hazardous material release, the report said.

The cost for these changes could be covered with no additional costs, the report said. It could come from fees collected by the Contra Costa County Certified Unified Program Agency, or through Measure X, the countywide, 20-year, half-cent sales tax approved by voters on November 3, 2020. Among other public health programs, Measure X is meant to fund emergency response systems.

According to Contra Costa County spokesperson Kristi Jordan, the Sheriff’s Office will have 60 days to respond from the date of the report, and the Board of Supervisors has 90 days.

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