Margins in Our Midst
ON SEPTEMBER 20, THE CENTER conducted a public bus tour of the industrial city of Irwindale, east of Los Angeles, as part of the exhibit Ground Up: Photographs of the Ground in the Margins of Los Angeles. “We will be going to some of the most banal and dramatic landscapes in Los Angeles,” said the CLUI’s tour guide, Matthew Coolidge, “and by the time we are done, we probably won’t be able to tell the difference.”
Like the exhibit at the CLUI, the tour was about the material that makes up the ground we live on. In a city like Los Angeles, nearly all of our time is spent—whether we are standing, sitting, sleeping, or driving—on an underlayment of concrete or asphalt. This manufactured ground material has its origins in the earth, at specific locations around the city. The aggregate that makes up the bulk of these bulk materials tends to be found in great abundance in the river valleys, where the disintegration of the mountains spills into channels, and falls downslope over the millennia, forming deep deposits in the ground. The material even sorts itself out, based on the distance from the mountains, with heavier, coarser material near the base of the slope, and progressively finer material further away.
The area of attention for the tour was the City of Irwindale, which lies at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, and straddles the San Gabriel River, one of the major alluvial fans bringing marginal material from the mountains into the L.A. basin. Here, the margins literally flow into the city’s midst. Furthermore, as the largest aggregate mining area in the state, if not the nation, so much sand and gravel comes out of Irwindale that pieces of Irwindale can be found around all of Los Angeles in the form of the aggregate in the asphalt that is spread on Los Angeles’ roads, the aggregate in the cement of the city’s major construction projects, and even the city’s land mass itself. The new terminal in L.A./Long Beach harbor, under construction for years, was built with fill from Irwindale – thus the inland city extended the western reach of the continent. The result of the city continuously giving of itself in this way, is that Irwindale is so full of holes that more of the land in the city is a pit than not.
After rounding a newly rock-studded landscaped cloverleaf at the I-10/I-605 intersection, the CLUI bus tour headed up the San Gabriel River, and turned into the gate at the first pit of the day, the Durbin Pit. The group was met by Denny Robinson, manager of operations at the pit, who boarded the bus and led the group through the maze of engineered plateaus, causeways, ordered mounds of material, and extraction machinery, explaining the process and taking questions along the way.
Durbin is one of three pits in the area operated by the Vulcan Materials Company, the nation’s largest construction aggregates company. Vulcan started off as Birmingham Slag, mining and marketing the slagpiles from the steel industry in Birmingham, Alabama. Business began to really take off in 1951, with need for aggregates for the new interstate highway system (to this day, possibly the largest complex construction project that the world has ever seen). Vulcan now, still headquartered in Alabama, has 10,000 employees working at 162 stone quarries, 33 sand and gravel plants and 43 asphalt plants, all over the country, generating $2.5 billion in annual sales (as well as a chemicals division, making chlorine and hydrochloric acid, based elsewhere).
To put this in a national perspective, the aggregate industry overall has around 120,000 employees, and 10,000 quarries, easily the largest mining industry in the country. The primary use of aggregates—officially defined as crushed rock, gravel (naturally broken rock), and sand—is in construction projects: 20% home construction; 20% commercial construction; and 20% is used for public works projects, such as airports, sewage systems, and other municipal infrastructure. The rest, 40%, is used in making roads. There are nearly 4 million miles of paved roads in the United States, and 94% of their asphalt is aggregate (the rest is the binding material, usually petroleum based). The asphalt and paving industry employs 330,000 people, while the broader transportation construction industry employs 2.5 million. Roads, clearly, are fundamental.
After a loop through the Durbin Pit, the bus passed by the Hanson Spancrete complex, a construction yard and administrative headquarters for California’s largest manufacturer of these prestressed precast concrete structural members. Spancrete was first used in the famous Arroyo Seco overpass next to downtown Los Angeles, called the first four level interchange in America. Spancrete is now an important premanufactured component expediting the assembly of ubiquitous functional structures like parking garages and freeway overpasses. Behind Hanson’s yard is the “Touchstone” Business Center with the likes of “Gibraltar” Products, Inc., more evidence that this region is the rock products capital of Los Angeles.
The bus then crossed the engineered San Gabriel River, noting the large vertical concrete fins protruding from the spillway, and headed into the second pit of the day, the Peck Road Quarry. Once inside the pit, those on board the bus could see that this is the western edge of a pit complex nearly a mile long, which is being worked especially on the east side by the Hanson Materials Company, which is the nation's largest manufacturer of bricks, concrete pipes, and precast products (including Spancrete), as well as the third largest aggregates producer in the USA.
Of the 17 major pits in the Irwindale area only four are being mined at the moment. Many of the others are idle, having already been mined to their permitted depth of 200 feet, and having met their limitations in size by running up to the edges of adjacent properties and roadways. In many cases the material extends to a thousand feet deep and the quarries are trying to get permits to go deeper. Vulcan estimates that if they could go another 150 feet, their Irwindale pits would have another 30 years of life. The city, on the other hand, having literally dispensed with so much of their taxable surface area, is interested in bringing the inactive pits back up to grade, so they can develop the land in a more economically productive way.
One of the filled-in pits has been capped with a giant slab of asphalt (itself, no doubt, made up mostly of Irwindale aggregate), and turned into the parking lots and tracks of Irwindale Speedway, one of a handful of large-scale car racing complexes in the L.A. area. When the CLUI bus tour dropped in on the Speedway, it was met by a representative, Doug Stokes, who showed us around. Though it is normal for the track to host things like Nascar racing, the Irwindale Speedway recently had been the host of the “D1 Grand Prix,” the first major drifting event in the nation. Drifting is an emerging car racing sport where cars move around in prolonged controlled skids. These are made possible by using lightweight, rear wheel drive compact cars, mostly Nissans and Toyotas of late ‘80s and early ‘90s vintage. The sport originated in Japan, and is said to have been based on a Japanese comic book about the adventures of a tofu delivery boy.
One way for these massive pits to be filled in over time is to turn them into dumps. While some did become household landfills, the city now discourages this sort of pit filling, as it is unsanitary, smelly, and potentially hazardous. And, as Los Angeles’ disposal pressures mount, there was a serious concern that hole-y Irwindale might become the garbage dump for all of L.A. Currently there are only three pits in Irwindale that are being commercially landfilled, and they generally accept construction debris and not domestic waste. After the visit to the Speedway, the CLUI bus tour entered one of these three dumps, the Live Oak/Nu Way landfill, operated by Waste Management Incorporated, the nation’s largest waste company. Between 1957-1973, this was an active quarry. In the 1980s, much of the pit was filled with mining waste from another quarry. The eighty feet or so that remains to be filled in, is slowly approaching grade, being filled in by “inert” wastes, mostly construction debris including rock, drywall, concrete, bricks, and metal. The group was met by Lalo, the site manager, who led the bus into the pit to observe the various recycling operations there, where construction debris is broken down, and divided into reusable and nonreusable metal, asphalt, and concrete piles.
The last stop on the tour before lunch was the Santa Fe Dam. The dam, an arc of piled rock nearly five miles long, built by the Army Corps, has never really had to be used for its designed purpose - yet. It was made to defend the land downstream from catastrophic debris flows. These are occasional storm events, which have been very destructive to some parts of the city, where unconsolidated rock from the mountains is mobilized by prolonged rain, and tumbles down the canyons and river valleys like a slow motion avalanche of coarse rock, gravel, and mud, destroying everything in its path. There are hundreds of check dams higher up in the mountains now, and these catch the majority of the flows before they reach the valley (the dam basins themselves are periodically emptied by the aggregate industry). Structures like the Santa Fe Dam, the Sepulveda Dam, the Hansen Dam, and the Whittier Narrows Dam are the last line of defense, built downslope to hold back a major flow that makes it out of the mountains, like a geologic shock absorber. Behind these dams are undevelopable areas that need to stay empty to contain the material from this potential unscheduled aggregate delivery. The permitted uses of the land here is ephemeral: oddly disorganized wildlife areas and recreation zones.
The CLUI bus climbed up the side of the Santa Fe Dam, then travelled down the length of the paved, narrow recreational pathway that runs along its top. The view out one side was of the margins of this sacrificial recreational zone within the dam, and the mountains looming above it, and on the other side, the downstream industries and roads of Azusa and Irwindale. The sight of the bus up there was enough to attract a police helicopter and squad car. Apparently not all the authorities had been made aware of the Center’s visit. The bus parked at the center of the Dam, above the gatehouse, the tourists disembarked, and flowed down the stairs set in the rock wall to the entrance of the tunnel, where they were met by Jeff Nelson, of the Army Corps of Engineers, who opened the doors and led the group into the heart of the 24,100 feet long, hundred feet tall rockpile.
If the Santa Fe Dam is meant to keep the mountain’s margins from merging with the city’s midst, then the next stop on the tour was about the city’s margins stopping at the mountains. Typically, in cities ringed by wilderness, things fray at the edges. At these margins, typical socialized behavior can give way to other, more marginalized activities. It is at the edges where you find, for example, dumping grounds, burned cars, and shooting ranges, places and activities nobody wants to see in the city’s midst. The bus arrived at the San Gabriel Valley Gun Club, at the end of the road at the base of the mountains, just as the local snackbar owner and his family were finishing preparing the 58 kebabs that had been preordered for the group. After lunch and a talk from the club’s representative, a small firearm was made available for anyone in the group to take a turn shooting the San Gabriel Mountains. Many partook, adding to the new land layer of shells and bullets.
Afterwards the bus followed the route the debris takes, from the mouth of the canyon that holds the San Gabriel River, down the wash back down the alluvial fan to the land of the pits. The next pit passed is known to locals as “Raider Crater,” for it was here, a decade or so ago, where the Los Angeles Raider football team pledged to build a stadium, inside a disused Irwindale pit. It was a plan that seemed to make sense; stands for 65,000 would be built on the sides of the pit, a playing field at the bottom, and the Miller brewery was visible across the highway. The plan fell apart, and the team took $10 million of Irwindale’s incentive money, and eventually moved up to Oakland. The pit remains fenced and empty.
The nearby Reliance pit is one of the most active in Irwindale. This is the site of Vulcan’s main processing facility, an amazing maze of conveyors, hoppers, and sorters. Neat piles of crushed and sorted rock are mounded in elegant conical piles of uniform grain size and texture. All this takes place in a 200 feet deep, massive rectangular hole, surrounded by office park buildings. Operations Manager Richard Roberts, and public affairs manager Todd Spitler met the group and gave a thorough, detailed tour through the operations of the site, including the old concrete silo on a raised area in the middle of the pit. This massive structure once loomed high over Irwindale, and had the big CalMat logo on it (Vulcan bought CalMat in 1999). The silo was currently being torn down so they could excavate underneath it, and reuse the concrete that it was made out of. The entire operation would then be nearly invisible, contained in the pit below the horizon line.
Heading up the ramp and out the main gate of the of the Reliance Pit put the bus onto Irwindale Boulevard, the main drag through the city. As the bus passes McDonald’s, the group is reminded that though Irwindale is said to have the highest per capita consumption of Big Macs, this is due probably to the fact that the population is less than 1,500, while nearly 40,000 people work here, many of them quite likely statistical hamburger eaters. The largest single employer in town is a frozen food company, Ready Pak Produce, followed by the cable TV company, followed by the Miller brewery. Irwindale's 9.5 square miles is largely a hodgepodge of margins, nonplaces, and the land not wanted by its neighboring cities, Duarte, Azusa, Baldwin Park, and El Monte. Its boundaries were made up by the existing limits of the surrounding cities, where their lines stopped in the unincorporated county white zone, in the wide gravel wash of the river, and along the Santa Fe sacrifice basin. But in 1957, when the city finally incorporated, the building boom was on, and its founders saw that revenue could be made by exporting its marginal real estate.
But not all the city got dug up and shipped out. The surface level land has typical office parks and bungalow rows. Irwindale Boulevard has muffler shops and storefronts. Like many L.A. Basin cities, aerospace was an important employer here, and just off the main drag, over the line in Azusa, Aerojet, the defense contractor, developed a complex for manufacturing and developing satellite-based surveillance systems that allow for, among other things, monitoring other nation’s rocket launches. Though Aerojet is mostly gone from the cavernous buildings down Optical Drive, the complex is now home to Northrop Grumman’s Electronic Systems, and a division of Perkin Elmer, the company that built the camera system for the SR-71 spy plane.
Across Irwindale Boulevard from the aerospace corner stands the landmark Miller brewery, visible to all who travel on the 210 Freeway, and the next stop on the Center’s bus tour. Like the sand and gravel of Irwindale, the city’s water is mined, processed, and shipped all over the place, in the form of beer products. Through its efforts to preserve the perceived purity of its water supply, the aquifer under the adjacent San Gabriel River, the plant has a direct effect on the landscape of Irwindale, using its leverage as one of the region’s major employers. When a trash-burning power plant was proposed for a pit next to the highly visible brewery, Miller successfully stopped the project. When the county proposed building wastewater percolation ponds along the San Gabriel River, the company sued to have the project reduced. When the plant needed room for expansion, Irwindale bought 242 acres of adjacent property for $10 million, and sold it to Miller for $1.
Since they don’t do public tours inside the plant, a representative of Miller, Kevin Harris, boarded the bus and led the group around the plant on a narrated tour of the facility from the outside. This plant uses over a million gallons of water a day to make nearly 200 million gallons of beer per year, under dozens of labels, many of them for other brands, such as Old Milwaukee, Schlitz, and Colt 45. Raw material including grains and corn slurry, come by rail, while the packaging material comes by truck. After a few weeks of fermentation, the finished product is shipped by truck to markets all over the west coast, but more than half of what is produced here goes to Los Angeles. This is one of six Miller breweries in the country, but is the only Miller brewery in the west. The next closest one is a thousand miles away in Texas. Miller, now owned by a South African beer company, is the second largest beer company in the country, with around 20% of the market nationwide. Anheuser-Busch, with around 50% of the market, is indeed the king of beers.
Miller is fortunate that its plant and water source is relatively close to the undeveloped mountains. Just downstream, the San Gabriel River aquifer under Irwindale has been designated a Superfund site, with a subsurface plume of contamination a mile wide that extends 8 miles south to West Covina - from the 210 to south of the 10, on the east side of the 605. Contaminants include perchlorates from rocket fuel at the Aerojet plant, and solvents and degreasers from the now closed Huffy bicycle factory. The next visit on the tour was the Azusa Land Reclamation Company, one of the eight legally responsible businesses cited in the Superfund suit, and responsible for assisting with the $200 million clean up of the contaminated ground. The Azusa Land Reclamation Company site is a former quarry pit that became an unlined hazardous material landfill. It was shut down by the state in 1991, due to the groundwater contamination concerns. In 1994, it reopened as a landfill, with new engineering and lining, and is now operated by Waste Management Incorporated. One of the four mandated water treatment facilities for pumping out and treating the contaminated aquifer is located at the site, and vents can be seen poking out of the mounded earth at the hazardous end of the dump.
The bus passed by the old sanitarium, across from the Irwindale Chamber of Commerce, on the way to the last two pit sites to be visited on the tour. The new Irwindale Business Center, just off Irwindale Boulevard, is a showpiece for the kind of development the city would like to see at other pit sites. It is a fancy new office park, that looks like other fancy office parks, except for the fact that it is about 30 feet below grade. Access roads into the park climb down a slope, into the faint remains of a (mostly) filled in gravel pit. After a loop through the business center, whose new tenants include the Custom Fruit Company, the final site on the tour was a brief look at a 192 acre empty pit, surrounded by homes, that was purchased a few years ago by the Catholic Arch Diocese for $3 million. The church has plans to develop the site by building a church, a school, a retreat center, and a cemetery there for some reason, one of the more unusual reuse proposals for the pits of Irwindale. The city manager is on the record as opposing it, however, and the city is trying to buy it back from the tax-exempt church.
Back on I-10, on the way home, the group ruminates on this portion of the Ramona Freeway, dedicated in 1954, part of the Interstate system, linking Jacksonville, New Orleans, Houston, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, in places more than ten lanes wide... Heading west, back towards the coast with beaches replenished by Irwindale’s sands... California, the leading consumer—as well as producer—of aggregate in the nation... These holes may be owned by Vulcan, Hanson, United Rock, the Pope, but they are holes that we all dug, together. ♦