Remediating Crude City

[The Infrastructural City blogiscussion – Chapter 3: Crude City]

[Removal of a leaking storage tank from a Superfund site.  Image via Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection photostream]

“But infrastructures, when outmoded, do not just disappear.  Forced underground, they undergo metamorphic transformations, the resulting strata propping up the world above” -Ruchala, Crude City

In reading Frank Ruchala’s Crude City chapter of Varnelis’ Infrastructural City, one is left with a question: if Los Angeles is the city that turned its back on its ‘crude’ past and present, is there another urbanism that fully embraced petroleum as a defining element of its identity?

As a possible answer, one might find themselves looking at the Houston/Texas Gulf Coast Region:

[“From the petroleum fields of West Texas, to the refineries and plastics plants clustered around the Gulf Coast, the petrochemical network of the nation converges on Texas, the home state of the Oil Industry. In ways the industry is like the space program, but it is larger in magnitude. It focuses on inner space: extracting the deepest essence of the Earth, unlocking the carbon from a distant prehistorical past, to use for consumption today, now. From the oil exploration, drilling, and services companies in the “upstream” realm, to the conveyance, storing, refining and processing activities “midstream” and “downstream,” these Texas-based corporations, through their innovations, and the products they collectively bring into being, have shaped the earth, sea, sky, and humanity, forever. Taken together, an inventory of the major petrochemical sites in Texas is a portrait of the reigning territory at the pinnacle of our Age of Oil.”]

As the above quote from the Center for Land Use Interpretation indicates, oil infrastructures are literally everywhere.  Composed of extremely diverse and interconnected landscapes, oil has dictated the form of contemporary cities.  The extraction of oil is one component of this system, and unlike most other forms of mining (Canada’s tar sands and catastrophic accidents/industry negligence exempted) its imprint on the surface of the land (a crude pumping mechanism) is comparatively small.

As Mammoth contends in their opening post on the chapter, the need or desire for the preservation of oil pumping infrastructure would seem a bit absurd, particularly if we are able to read the prevalence and latent ecology of the ‘age of oil’ as embedded in the contemporary.  Taken as a whole, Los Angeles’ massive horizontal expanse is perhaps the biggest monument, or relic of oil one could find.

Central LA’s loss of land uses devoted to manufacturing and resource extraction is common to most contemporary American cities.  It’s more a noteworthy anomaly that oil extraction can still be found there.  As Alan Berger has mapped in Drosscape, manufacturing and related land uses have either relocated to the urban edge of cities, or have migrated off-shore as part of more generalized processes of globalization.  Yet, the evolving landscape infrastructure of oil and its legacy is present throughout the city, and one lens through which to view that legacy is by examining its residual persistence.

After crude oil is pumped to the surface, it is refined to separate into isolated hydrocarbons for a wide variety of uses.  Ironically, a significant portion of these hydrocarbon products find their way back underground in a more problematic configuration. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a brownfield as “a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” The EPA estimates that there are more than 450,000 brownfields in the U.S., approximately half of which are contaminated with hydrocarbon-based pollutants, such as gas stations, military complexes, and industrial-chemical factories.  These sites have given rise to the evolution of  remedial infrastructures to return these degraded drosscapes into the productive urban fabric.

[Gas station brownfield, NE 33rd and Broadway, Portland, OR.  The nearly acre-width excavation behind the station reveals the extent of the toxic plume released from a leaking subsurface storage tank.  The soil has been exported for ex-situ bioremediation].

Remedial Infrastructures consist of a variety of tested and experimental strategies largely based on a synthesis of science and applied engineering:


[phytoremediation, source]

[bioventing pipes (above and below), Sacramento. Source]

[Sparging, source]

[mycoremediation (which is proving particularly effective for hydrocarbon pollutants, source]

“…Unlike the freeway and water networks, oil’s infrastructure is privatized, built out by numerous private companies of various sizes throughout the years…Los Angeles’ oil network is far more sensitive to the mechanization of the marketplace than its publicly controlled infrastructures are.”

Similar to oil’s sites of extraction, the points of its distribution and use are also a collection of private ownerships that complicates the delineation and extent of sub surface toxicity. The opening page of the Crude City chapter provides a map of where LA’s oil deposits occur.  Similar comprehensive maps of refined crude’s return as brownfields are, for the most part, non-existent because of the complexities of private ownership and real estate ecologies.

[modeled dynamics of the flow of subsurface toxins]

Land owners are reluctant to test for, or reveal a toxic problem as it significantly reduces the salability of the land and creates questions regarding liability.  Yet if and when the owner decides to sell or redevelop the land, such tests are legally unavoidable.  Thus the EPA and federal and local governments have tried to create incentives for owners to remediate rather than allow pollution to persist and spread.  According to the EPA: “Cleaning up and reinvesting in these properties increases local tax bases, facilitates job growth, utilizes existing infrastructure, takes development pressures off of undeveloped, open land, and both improves and protects the environment.”

[‘An array of vertical multi-point sampling devices installed to monitor small-scale subsurface geochemical heterogeneities in a contaminant plume at the Cape Cod, Massachusetts, research site. Knowledge and models developed at this site are employed at many sites with sparse data.Source]

There is a productive rawness in these infrastructures compared to the layers of ‘subterfuge’ surrounding the extractive oil pumps in LA.   As the above collection of images demonstrate, most brownfields lack design veneer or cultural framing (particularly during the idle years and during their cleanup).  They are pragmatic, living and political infrastructures grafted onto landscape like a Rube Goldberg-esque collection of pipes and gadgets (…try to find engaging images of remediation [actual, rather than proposed design vignette] online and see what you find.  If you have better ones, do tell).  Without creating subterfuge, there is more that could be done with these residual fields that could affect both their environmental health and critical engagement with the legacy of crude.

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