Shell's Martinez Oil Refinery was built over 90 years ago on an 1,100-acre site along the Carquinez Inlet. It is located approximately 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. Originally, it was owned and operated by a local firm, the Martinez Refinery Company, which operated the facility for 15 years before Shell acquired it.
As the population of the San Francisco Bay Area grew and US involvement in World War I became more and more likely, the Martinez Refinery Company constructed the facility in order to process crude petroleum from the nearby fields of the San Joaquin Valley. Finished products were sold to the increasing number of automobile owners as well as merchant ships and the US Navy.
Shell Oil took over operations in 1931, adding a research lab as well as a chemical processing division. Light oil processing equipment was added in the 1960s, with additional upgrades between 1980 and the mid-1990s.
Texaco bought into the refinery in 1998, and the name was changed to the Martinez Refining Company. When Shell took over Texaco in 2002, it became the Shell Martinez Refinery.
Asbestos and Shell's Martinez Oil Refinery
In almost all of the last century, whenever fire or extreme temperature was a risk, the mineral called asbestos was selected as a building material. Materials that contained asbestos, accordingly, were frequently used when building facilities such as Shell's Martinez Oil Refinery. Resistance to reactive chemicals is perhaps a less well-known property of certain kinds of asbestos. In light of the nature of the work that occurs in oil refineries, asbestos, therefore, was not only used in factory buildings, but also in safety clothing, benches and coating materials. And although the asbestos worked well in preventing the spread of fire and in protecting lives from extreme temperatures, the mineral also exposed those same people to significant health risks.
Amosite was almost always the variety of asbestos used in such locations. When mixed with chrysotile, which is impervious to heat and bases but not as resistant to acids, the amphibole amosite creates materials that are especially good at protecting against corrosive substances. Although it was outlawed as a construction material in the 1970s, this amosite, in the form of asbestos transite, was used for decades in refineries and labs across the US.
Asbestos transite could be molded into working surfaces and sprayed onto pipes and ductwork just as cement could. As long as it was solid, this form of asbestos posed little danger. As transite with asbestos containing material (ACM) gets older and become prone to crumbling, however, lethal, microscopic particles are able to float into the air. When it is in this state, it is considered friable, or able to be pulverized by hand pressure alone. Also, industrial kilns frequently were constructed with friable asbestos in insulation linings.
The Dangers of Friable Asbestos
When they are friable, asbestos particles are readily dispersed into the atmosphere. Breathing asbestos fibers can cause conditions like cancer or asbestosis. Mesothelioma, a rare but almost always deadly disease affecting the mesothelium (the tissue that lies between the lungs and the pleural cavity), has been shown to be linked with asbestos exposure. When those airborne particles settle on food or drinks and are subsequently ingested, pericardial or peritoneal mesothelioma may occur, although they are rarer than pleural mesothelioma.
Increased pressure from activist groups, the press and medical scientists led to regulations controlling how to use asbestos. However, when Shell's Martinez Oil Refinery was first operating, the use of asbestos was much more common. And even now, asbestos from the past can cause problems if it is not disposed of properly during demolition and remodeling jobs.
The Time Bomb
One of the insidious aspects of asbestos exposure is the associated illnesses can take many, many years to manifest - often long after the worker leaves the employer. When a former worker begins developing symptoms such as pain in the chest or abdomen, chronic coughing and dyspnea, his or her physician might not immediately recognize asbestos exposure as the culprit, leading to a delay in diagnosis and treatment. Therefore, it is extremely important for folks who worked in or lived near plants like Shell's Martinez Oil Refinery to ask their health care professionals for mesothelioma information. Such information can enable doctors make accurate diagnoses; especially with mesothelioma, the earlier the diagnosis, the higher the chances of surviving or at least of enjoying an improved quality of life through treatments such as mesothelioma surgery.
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