Southern California is many things. Quite infamously, it is known as a landscape defined by the automobile, from the emergence and diffusion of the highway system to fast food burgers, and the suburbanization of the United States. Walking this place then, would seem not only inconvenient, but ill advised. In this article, sociologist, writer, and photographer Brian F. O’Neill describes his intentional use of walking as an approach to encounter the spaces, places, and people inhabiting the landscapes that “green,” environmentally friendly California would rather forget. Specifically, the essay investigates and narrates the social, economic, and political contours of what is described as “toxic triangle” of Huntington Beach, intimating that this toxicity might be understood as more than just an issue of chemical pollution.

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It’s late summer of 2019 and I have just arrived in California. It’s a place I always dreamed of, perhaps like everyone else. There is a moisture in the air – supposedly it’s the marine layer. It’s the first time I have lived here. It’s also the first time I have visited the city of Huntington Beach. 

The first observations are powerful, if cliché: sand, beaches, palm trees, and beautiful people. And just north is the land of celebrities and cinema – Los Angeles – furthering one’s initial impression of a vacation-like ambiance. A sign along the Pacific Coast Highway reads “Welcome” in white letters against a calming sky-blue hue – that seems promising. But, I also realise very quickly, I don’t really know anything about this place. Huntington Beach and this region of Southern California, while still in my country, are as foreign to me as the most distant, exotic location one could imagine. But my work is here, and so that is where I need to be.

Another problem – I don’t know anybody here. So, I have to start somewhere in this seemingly endless, vast and expansive place. My first response is to hit the streets quite literally. As a photographer, to walk is often my preferred method of being mobile. To be mobile is to afford opportunities to see. Immediately, questions emerge. What does the everyday person inhabiting the landscape perceive? Even if this is the land of the car and palm trees, you never know what you might find. As my knees start to feel the dull pain of the repetitive heel-toe action of walking around the concrete and asphalt, I realise, bodily, that this place wasn’t meant for walking. Also, the distances are impossible here. Everything is inconvenient. What have I done, coming here?

Following the sound of the cars and the surf, I come upon a location that I would be drawn back to time and again. It’s a little off the beaten path from the renowned Beach Boulevard and occupying a piece of the legendary Pacific Coast Highway that both the residents of the city and its uber-wealthy neighbours in Newport Beach would rather forget – what my friends would refer to as the “toxic triangle.” 

 

Soon enough, I understand why they have given it its moniker. The “toxic triangle” is a monster of a city block, making a very lengthy, extended rectangular-ish shape around a combined gas-fired electrical generating station, a decommissioned crude oil storage and refining facility, and wetland. Down the road just a couple of minutes’ walk is also one of the largest sewage treatment plants this side of the Mississippi. Across the street on all sides, there is a school, suburban tract homes and a trailer park. They’re all competing for this little patch of space where the land meets the sea.

Heading towards a corner of the supposedly legendary Pacific Coast Highway, I hear the roar of a mix of speeding Maserati’s (the dealership is just south in Newport Beach) and Ford F-150s fitted with oversized tires on the pavement – “fhssssssstttttt!” They both let you know their dominance of the road in their own way. A lone biker vies for real estate on the roadway. Riding by, she makes sure to, unprovoked, give me the bird and yell, “fuck you, you know!”

As I make my way closer to shore, the sensations multiply at this urban-coastal complex. In many ways, I think, some truly American rhythms are at play here. As the heat of the day dissipates, I have the surreal sense that the tires are somehow sublimating the asphalt via the combined forces of pressure and velocity, enhanced by the somewhat distant, but acrid and ever-present odour of a hot road. I notice the beginning of the process of the crosswalk lines peeling away as a result of these forces. I pause along the concrete sidewalk, detecting distantly, a new smell – salt water. Pungent, but not overly so. And not exactly that of the ocean. Not yet. My senses are cast somewhere in-between – in the midst of the cacophonous and the symphonic.

As I walk further, out comes the camera from my bag. The sun is going down now. But I’m not really here for sunset shots. I set up my tripod and begin taking a few exposures: on both sides of the street, the whole scene is before me – upper-middle class aspirations amongst ageing industrial infrastructure from the era of post-war American prosperity. On the other side of the two-lane road is middle-class trailer park housing.

The two sites are somehow connected: there, over the course of my living here for the better part of a year, I would come to meet some of the forgotten aerospace engineers from Boeing, and old technicians from Northrup Grumman inhabiting these. “It was a great career,” they all assure me. Amidst all this sensory overload, I almost miss the fact that there is also a wetland beneath my feet. White egrets occasionally flit into my frames, seemingly indifferent to the carpet of noise.

 

Working with a camera can draw attention, but working with a tripod can be a moth to flame situation especially – people go out of their way to come talk to you. A very California woman on a pink, footbrake bicycle comes teetering up to me from the beach. She has pink sunglasses and a bandanna – the full effect. 

“Hey! How about that view, I’ve never stopped to see this before!”

“Come by this way a lot?” I inquire.

“Oh yeah, but usually I am just worried about not getting hit by one of these cars. Plus, I have this bike with no gears. So, I have to keep up a good pace!” 

She whips out her phone and starts taking some photos. “At first, I thought you were fishing,” she tells me. “I see lots of people fishing here. Homeless. Yuck! Who knows what’s in that water?”

We talk for a minute about where we are both from in the Midwest – Illinois and Ohio. I try and see if she is aware of the desalination plant development or the other industry here that I have read about.

“Oh yeah… but the plant is just about done, I think. Are you a humanitarian?”

“No, not exactly, I’m a sociologist,” I say.

“Oh, so you’re interested in the wildlife and everything,” she replies.

“Well, I’m working with some environmental groups here, but also I’ll be talking with the people wanting to build the plant.”

That’s enough for her. Mounting the bicycle, she departs: “Okay, well yeah, I think it’s just about finished, but hey, its California!”

The plant had not been built – a project that was supposed to bring an additional 50 million gallons of water per day to the region’s supply. I didn’t know this at the time, but in fact, it never would be built. But the general knowledge that there was a project in play in this place already so thoroughly industrialised, seemed to go hand in hand with the assumption that it would be completed. Development is always in the continual process of unfolding in California, she seemed to say.

 

On my prior walks I noticed that a bridge was built over the wetland, allowing for pedestrian and vehicular traffic into the adjoining neighbourhoods. I decide to head there. I shoot pictures for a while at this location as the sun goes down. People in pastel-colored shirts and sandals come and go to the beach. 

Then, I get an inquisitor. Sometimes, photography can be just like fishing. A man this time. Blue shirt, middle-aged. No sunglasses. We get to talking. Well, I get talked at. Maybe I was asking for it. I ask him about what it’s been like to live here. 

“Well, it was an oil town, you know, before they thought they could make more money on it selling and building homes everywhere. But whatever… it’s kind of weird that they would want to continue to build more industry here when they may even expand the fucking power plant…

But the thing is, there’s other pieces of fucking property where this desalinisation plant could go and not be seen as an eyesore. Besides this is a fucking goddamn bottom land here. This is dangerous zone for tsunamis and flooding. So why do we want to keep stacking the fucking cards against this wetland. It’s totally, totally known internationally that this is a fuckin’ major area for it… It doesn’t take a fuckin scientist.”

I think of Elliot Gould’s Philip Marlowe, through that 1973 rendition of The Long Goodbye. His preferred response to the verbal abuse he receives is: “it’s okay with me.”

The next day, I send my new sweary friend some of the photos I took. I was hoping to broker this encounter into a first relationship and possibly use it as another means of entry into this community. After all, for decades visual scholars have been reporting that sharing images with interlocutors was a sure way to curry favour, to show that you care about them and the places within which you are embedded. I’m just trying to follow protocol at this point. Instead, he makes sure to give me a couple of unsolicited criticisms. According to him, I had “processed” the photo to make it look, in his words, “cyber-punk.” Maybe he had been reading Neuromancer, I think, but that’s wishful. If only Southern California were so exciting. The more I walk, the more I think I have stepped into J.G. Ballard’s The Drought. Well, I wanted opinions from people, and I got them.

As the months wore on, I had the privilege of taking what were called “toxic tours” with people who wanted to show me around. At least they weren’t criticising the pictures I was bothering to make. 

 

Highlighting the industrial blight and constant interest from new developers amidst the clamour of a regional regulatory authority workshop at city hall that same year, I got to hear one resident’s testimony, which cut to the heart of the unaddressed concerns of those who would quite literally live with the desalination plant in their backyards: 

“This is not just a water issue. This is a health and human rights issue for me… my home … is inundated with toxicity from not one but two AES power plants, an ASCON landfill site that is currently halted because the remediation was so toxic… They [referring to Poseidon, the firm behind the idea for the desalting plant] just keep talking about all the money that they’re going to be charging us for the water we don’t need. We have a portion of their pipeline that they want to construct… I’m not sure everybody is aware of this, but there are two wells that were abandoned by ASCON because of contamination… We have a big problem down here. We call it the toxic triangle.” 

Of course, the company promoting this plan only emphasised how it would be a new source of water to fight the drought. But, who was this stuff really serving? I wondered. And the more people I spoke to, the more I discovered that the question of a simpler option – of alternatives – was ever-present. In fact, simpler technologies were adopted by some of my interlocutors and had begun to figure strongly in how they understood the horizon of possibility under climate change.

 

A mutual friend introduces me to John over email. “He’d be a great person to talk to – he’s been involved in everything.”

John and I eventually find time to meet in a local, dimly lit, bar with red vinyl seats a few blocks from the coast. In the intervening 22 years since he first heard of the desalination issue, he’d  seen some of his friends come and go – with some spending the bulk of their professional lives and retirements fighting the project in their “down time.” In particular, he gets choked up about one close friend who died at his keyboard hammering out letters to local officials about issues he was involved in.

For some of them, the ones he admired most, activism was a lifetime preoccupation. For these people, the problem was never just about one company or issue, but a series of them, a systemic problem about the infringement of his community’s interest. Eventually, I ask John if I can take his portrait. He agrees, but on one condition. He wants to be photographed with his orange tree in his backyard, where he still takes care of his disabled son.

John explains he is uncomfortable with the term “environmentalist,” much in the way some of my other interlocutors are: “because, what does it mean?” John tells me that he has tried to embrace “sustainable ideas” in any way he can. Now he has a solar panel array on his roof, two 30-gallon rain barrels and two 50-gallon barrels for drinking and irrigating his drought tolerant garden. 

All of John’s garden-scape is in view as we step through the gate at the side of his house. It seems a meager property now given recent trends in the area of two-story homes built to maximize the square footage of the land, leaving little yard. Contrastingly, John’s seems quite midwestern: a bit of yard in front, and then space enough to sit and sip a drink and have lunch in the back, tend to the plants. It’s a place to live – one less obviously concerned with the accretion of value towards future sale.

In his modest courtyard, not a few feet from the entrance gate and visible from the interior of the home via a glass sliding door, is an orange tree. He reaches, a bit high, first with a claw device attached to a thin PVC pipe. Unsuccessful. The tree doesn’t seem to want to give up its fruit. He steps a bit closer under the tree and picks one, giving it a good tug to free the selected orange, getting a few leaves in his hair. As he hands it to me, I almost jump, thinking there was a spider on it.

But no. It was just a bunch of big black splotches. “From the air pollution,” he smirks and laughs a depressing laugh. 

He’s trying to make a life here, even after all these years. 

“I can’t see that with the changes we have made that they are that hard or detrimental to us… I think it’d be good for all of us to be a bit more concerned about our world. You know, it’s ours. If we don’t take care of it, who the hell will? You know there are a lot of people out there who have other priorities… I look at our local government and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of concern for the environment. It seems to me that the tax base is pretty much their priority… you know it doesn’t speak well… They get two years out in front of them, and they can’t look toward the future.”

 

As reports continue to mount showing the global impact of the desalination industry, they start to reveal the fact that pollution from the process – hyper-saline brine, may be more serious than originally believed. The state of coastal waters will only be made worse by the process, it seems. Nevertheless, new desalination projects have emerged on the permitting docket in California, some in other beach cities near Huntington Beach, others near Los Angeles and even farther north, even if the one in the toxic triangle was not able to move forward after an intense regulatory battle. 

I stay in touch with these friends. I always continue to learn more about the site. And I realise why they were so sweary. The toxic triangle is always under siege. Someone always has their designs in for it. The decades-long postponement of the desalination project seems to have given way to yet a new venture.

Re-connecting with my interlocutors and reading the news emerging about the site makes one wonder about the extent to which the “victory” against the desalination plant may have been pyrrhic. A plan for a luxury hotel and 250 homes is set to be brought before the California Coastal Commission for re-zoning of the very same site as was to be occupied by the desalination plant. 

The project website includes a ghostly outline of the crude oil containers alongside testimonials from former mayors and extensive text discussing how it will “promote eco-tourism,” re-energise the local economy,” “promote green building, sustainability,” and even “provide affordable housing.1

My mind goes back to those first encounters: “it’s kind of weird,” and “well, it’s California.” The environmental NGO I worked with is unsure of the possibilities of success, but through various legal measures they may try to delay or at least instil some degree of remediation into the plans. I think of my own discussions with two former mayors – while both of them were on separate sides of the desalination issue, they both expressed remorse to me about the various “ugly” home, apartment, and business development projects that they had supported over the years, which they came to regret.

While, on the surface, I would routinely witness a powerful façade of business interests and development, the more people I met, the more I found their reservations, often long-standing about the trajectory of this coastal urbanism. What possibilities, the people seem to ask, does this place have, beyond a certain corporate interest? 

 

And so, in a place that is built for cars–whose urbanism is a dedication to them – I now recognise how essential it was to have taken the chance to slow down and to walk its roads. For walking provided me a point of access into the life of this coastal community, to grasp the dynamics of everyday inhabiting against those of industrial and corporate production. It was an opportunity to meet people “head-on.” And, surely, and perhaps most importantly, it allowed me to recover, if only for brief moments, from this place and its toxicity.

About the Author


Brian F. O’Neill is a sociologist by trade, and writer/photographer by passion. His work is concerned with issues of urban infrastructure, environmental politics, and mobilities. He currently holds the position of Ocean Nexus Fellow in the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Washington. He has published numerous books, articles and essays in both popular and scholarly outlets, such as Nature Water, The Society Pages, Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, and many more. In 2021, Brian began his “Transects Sequence” of artist books with Beach Boulevard (published with Immaterial Books), wherein he draws from the scientific tradition of utilizing certain geographic segmentations of territory as a means to social structural, but also affective, investigation.

www.brianfoneill.net
www.immaterialbooks.com

Footnotes & references

[1] https://magnoliatankfarm.com


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