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Huge gas flare at Bay Area oil refinery had an adorable cause

The Shell Oil refinery in Martinez | Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Residents of the East Bay city of Martinez are fairly accustomed to incidents of flaring at one of the region’s oil refineries, but a brief episode on Dec. 22 had a fairly innocuous cause: a raccoon.

A trash panda found its way into a substation at the refinery, causing a power interruption that, in turn, led to flaring for 7 minutes, a Dec. 23 incident notification submitted by Martinez Refining Company to Contra Costa County said.

Flaring essentially means burning off excessive gas to maintain a safe, steady pressure—in this case, because a critter typically known for carefully washing its food had effectively been vaporized.

Nicole Heath, the acting director of Hazardous Materials Programs at Contra Costa County Health Services, who has spent much of the last two decades auditing refineries and major chemical companies, said the incident fell under the county’s minimal hazard level.

“This came in at our lowest level, with no off-site consequences, including to the health of citizens,” Heath told The Standard. 

It’s also not uncommon for wildlife like raccoons to find a way into a facility like Martinez Refining Company, which is owned by PBF Energy, she added.

“Just like our homes, we try the best we can,” Heath said. “Nobody was hurt, as far as we know.”

The Martinez Refining Company posted a status update about the flaring on Dec. 22, writing, “The refinery experienced a power dip this evening that caused a brief flaring event at the refinery. The cause of the electrical disruption is under investigation. Refinery operations are stable.”

Some commenters were nonplussed, noting that there had been similar flarings over the past few weeks, including one on Dec. 9. 

“Would you rather have the consequences that happen if the refinery can’t flare?” another responded.

The Standard has reached out to PBF Energy for comment.

Astrid Kane can be reached at