by Sayd Randle
Here’s a story that sounds like a joke with a foul punch line. One day in 1939, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann, and two women walk along the shore south of Los Angeles. The weather is beautiful, the beach is empty, and Shakespeare is debated. Then the group realizes that something’s funny about the beach. As Huxley put it in the essay, “Like Hyperion to a Satyr,” they are suddenly walking among “ten million emblems and mementoes of Modern Love … Malthusian flotsam and unspeakable jetsam.”
The four had found themselves among a sea of used condoms that ejected by Los Angeles’s Hyperion sewage treatment plant. Huxley returned to those shores a few years later, after L.A. upgraded the plant in 1950. He was overjoyed with what he saw, and what he thought the vista suggested about the city:
[A]nother torrent, this time about 99.95 percent pure, rushes down through the submarine outfall and mingles, a mile offshore, with the Pacific. The problem of keeping a great city clean without polluting a river or fouling the beaches, and without robbing the soil of its fertility, has been triumphantly solved.
In most of his writing, Huxley is an ambivalent cheerleader, at best, for the wonders of high modernist technology. But as this excerpt suggests, something about the new Hyperion quieted his critical side. He depicts the plant as an unambiguous boon, and more significantly, the triumphant solution to the age-old problem of dealing with the ongoing disaster of human waste in the city. The boundaries between pollution and the rest of the metropolis are portrayed as impermeable thanks to the construction of this hyper-modern treatment plant, separating the cityscape from its own wastes once and for all.
Evolving notions of the nature of a healthy, well-managed city have animated public conversations about Hyperion and the condoms, shit, hypodermic needles, and even “lethal superbugs” the plant has dumped into the Santa Monica Bay over the past century. Describing the plant’s salubrious (or destructive) effects on L.A. shorelines has long served as a way to talk about far more than just unsightly beach trash. Since Hyperion became an object of attention in Huxley’s day, issues of public safety and spatial governance have also slid, implicitly or explicitly, into discussions of how L.A. should manage its sewage, and debates about Hyperion have been shot through with ever-shifting ideas about what it means to build and maintain a genuinely flourishing metropolis. Angelenos’ demands of the treatment plant, in other words, have long indexed a set of shifting expectations for what the urban environment can and should be.
When the first Hyperion treatment plant began operations in 1924, it was hailed as a dramatic improvement from the previous arrangement, which was no treatment at all. Up to that point, L.A. had deposited its sewage directly from the sewer into the ocean, through an outfall pipe in the southern L.A. beach community of El Segundo. The new facility, constructed next to the old outfall, used simple screens to filter the wastewater flowing in from the sewer network, dumping the outflow into the sea through a submarine concrete pipe; city workers buried the screened detritus in nearby sand dunes. Few saw the setup as ideal, but it was in line with the technological and sanitary norms of the time. Dilution — of the inflowing sewage by the ocean — was assumed to be an adequate solution to the problem of pollution.
Unfortunately, the population boom that began in the nineteen-twenties quickly overwhelmed Hyperion’s cleaning capacity. Under the stress of unplanned-for volumes of waste, the pipe depositing the screened sewage into the sea disintegrated rapidly, springing leaks within yards of the coastline; as early as 1925, sewage was visible on the beaches. In 1941, the L.A. Times was moved to publish a three-part series on the “health menace” produced by the city’s derelict wastewater conveyance and treatment infrastructure. The system was described as “overloaded, antiquated, cracked, disintegrated.” In one article, a plant engineer states that only “3 to 5 percent” of solids were removed from the waste stream at Hyperion before being pumped into a “a leaky tunnel to be distributed on the bathing beaches.” Two years later, after outbreaks of dysentery among beachgoers, the health officers enacted a quarantine on ten miles of beaches along the southern Santa Monica Bay. The L.A. Times headline that appeared — “Council Acts Belatedly to End Sewer Menace” — captures Hyperion’s image as a public health enemy.
By 1945, when L.A. voters finally approved a major bond to fund improvements to Hyperion, the sewage industry standard had evolved to “advanced primary treatment,” which relies on a combination of screens and settling tanks to remove solids from the wastewater. But L.A.’s waste managers chose to do something unprecedented for a metropolis of its size: provide “secondary treatment” for all of the city’s wastewater. In secondary treatment systems, sewage flows through several screening assemblies, settling ponds, aeration, and, finally, clarification tanks, in addition to receiving a thorough chlorine dousing. This long series of mechanical and biological processes produces dramatically cleaner effluent to dump into the ocean than old Hyperion’s simple screens ever did. The solids removed in the treatment process, known as sludge, are then processed in anaerobic digester tanks for separate disposal. Unsurprisingly, opting for secondary at this scale was staggeringly expensive, and the city had to pass further bond measures in the late forties to complete the project as designed. Early in the process, engineering consultants hired by the city warned that if L.A.’s population continued to expand, sewer inflows would quickly exceed the plant’s planned capacity of two hundred and forty-five million gallons per day at the secondary treatment level. These critiques were ignored, and construction proceeded apace.
In The Infrastructural City, architectural theorist Kayzs Varnelis goes so far as to suggest that “infrastructure is the only theology that really took hold in the American West.” This statement may be pushing it, but the point is well taken, when one looks at popular representations of the newly renovated Hyperion. Ted Niederhofer, Chief Inspector of the Los Angeles Board of Public Works, was floored by his tour of the Hyperion construction site in 1949. “When you go there, you’re going to see something that is unlike any project in the world,” he gushed. “You could spend a week looking it over … When you have finished, you will see that it is not a mere engineering project. You will see that it is an engineer’s dream come true. It has lines and designs that are sheer perfection. You will see that as a physical, man-made thing it has beauty.”
Aware of this appeal, and eager to rehabilitate Hyperion’s public image, when city officials deemed the first section of the new plant ready to begin operations in 1950, they decided to put on a show for reporters. In front of more than two thousand citizens, L.A. Mayor Fletcher Bowron beamed as he smashed a bottle of champagne against one of the plant’s check gates as the treatment infrastructure gurgled in the background. The spectacle garnered a top-of-the-fold story in the next morning’s L.A. Times, which optimistically predicted plant’s effectiveness: “virtually all of the contamination [of the beaches] is expected to be eliminated.”
The visual language of a July 29 L.A. Times pictorial spread echoes this enthusiasm, and leaves the reader awed at the scale, cleanliness, and space-age aura of the plant. An aerial shot of the entire operation and a photo of a worker cleaning the massive row of aeration tanks sit above images of detergent bubbles and inspectors examining their reflections in the clear water of the settling tanks, while captions trumpet the end of the beach quarantine. Hyperion, in this moment, is a truly solid, formidable barrier between the city and its own waste. Huxley’s delight in the plant makes sense: Hyperion appears to be a stable technological assemblage capable of making beach-flotsam a sickening menace of the distant past.
Engineers loved, visited, and wrote about the plant, too, but read it somewhat differently. Roger Sutherland, a Milwaukee Sewerage Commissioner, made a pilgrimage to the plant in November 1951 and penned an op-ed about his visit for the L.A. Times. After praising Hyperion’s state-of-the-art technology, beautiful grounds, and competent management, Sutherland went on to suggest the next steps: Reworking the sludge production part of the plant to make it capable of producing more fertilizer, and upping the water treatment steps another notch to allow for the “salvage” of the wastewater in the name of re-use within the city. Contra Huxley, Sutherland doesn’t frame the Hyperion he toured as the definitive, triumphant solution to the city’s torrent of wastewater, but as just another innovation in a long line of coming, inevitable improvements. Two strands of thinking seem to underpin this position: a characteristic mid-century faith in engineering’s ability to bring a better future into being, and an instinct to understand infrastructure as an ongoing process rather than a fixed achievement.
Within a few years of the new Hyperion’s completion, it became apparent that the consultants had been right: L.A.’s population and sewer flows were increasing steadily, and would soon overwhelm the plant’s infrastructure, leading to the kind of system disintegration and frequent spills that plagued the older, smaller plant. While the city’s beaches weren’t yet dirty again, it was clear that they could be again, and soon.
The city appointed a blue-ribbon commission to study ways to expand the plant’s treatment capacity. In October 1954, the group proposed a solution: The city should downgrade its treatment for most of the sewage flowing into Hyperion, but build a much longer outfall pipe from the plant. The panel argued that this fix would avoid the intimidating expense of expanding the plant’s secondary treatment capacity while minimizing the dangers from primary-treated sewage to beachgoers. Primary treatment would dominate at the plant, but at least citizens would have a bigger buffer from the dirtier water.
In the decade that followed, the city built both five-mile (for the effluent) and a seven-mile (for the sludge) sub-marine outfall pipes from Hyperion into the ocean. This was apparently enough distance between the outflow and the beach picnickers to put peoples’ minds at ease — the newspaper record reveals little in the way of outcry at the decision to downgrade the level of treatment for much of the city’s wastewater. The plant’s secondary treatment equipment still operated, but by the late sixties, only twenty-five percent of the incoming wastewater received its advanced cleansing. The one-mile outfall constructed for the 1950 plant was repurposed for an emergency overflow valve, through which raw (save for a splash of chlorine) effluent would be diverted in cases of power failure or overwhelming inflow. These shifts tripled the plant’s capacity — necessary for the burgeoning city — but represented a significant downgrade in the caliber of treatment most sewage received.
As these technological downshifts were taking place at Hyperion, another decline was underway. In the fifties, visitors had warmed to the plant’s color schemes and gushed over the interior colors and landscaping, designed to blend in with the surrounding sand dunes. But within a couple of decades, the landscaping was gone and the physical plant was run down. Day by day, Hyperion was becoming less a showcase of city pride and more an unpleasant space best avoided. Somewhat appropriately, in the early seventies, filmmakers used Hyperion to film climactic scenes in the dystopian sci-fi classic Soylent Green. In the movie, the plant serves as the set of the factory that processed human corpses into rations for a decaying, overpopulated city. Rather than functioning as a symbol of a cleaner, safer future enabled by technological wizardry, in the film Hyperion’s physical plant represents a dark, techno-skeptical, and even grimy vision of things to come.
Meanwhile, American expectations for — and legal constraints around — urban water quality were increasing, putting the declining Hyperion on a collision course with new norms. Historian Martin Melosi links the shift directly to the rising environmental, or “new ecology,” movement of the sixties, connecting the decline in the public’s faith in the inherent good of large-scale engineering projects with a rise in attention to the diffuse, often unpleasant effects of unrestrained development. In L.A., for instance, pride in the city’s massive freeway network was increasingly tempered by concerns over its ever-decreasing air quality — the dark side of the “progress” once symbolized by massive pieces of urban infrastructure like highways and Hyperion was becoming increasingly prominent.
The creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 can be understood as codifications of this new way of thinking (and worrying) about infrastructure and the urban environment. The CWA’s provisions presented a formidable gauntlet for cities across the nation. Among the most onerous new rules: the CWA’s requirement that all municipal sewage receive secondary treatment, the level of cleansing L.A. had largely abandoned in the fifties. These stricter standards for sewage re-entering urban environments after treatment reflected a waning tolerance for pollution within city spaces.
L.A.’s city government chafed under this new locus of responsibility, particularly its price tag. Estimates suggested that providing full secondary treatment for all of L.A.’s wastewater would cost well north of a billion dollars, an enormous sum for a city to source in the lean late seventies. Relying on the old “dilution is the solution to pollution” logic, city engineers argued that the Pacific Ocean was adequate to the task of diluting Hyperion’s primary treated flows, and thus they didn’t need to invest in expensive secondary treatment for all of the sewage. Things could be cleaner, yes, but they were clean enough at present. On this basis, the city applied for a waiver to exempt it from the standards in 1979, for which it received tentative approval in 1981. The approval was followed by a public hearing on the matter in 1985 that went off without much fanfare: A pair of dissenting environmentalists presented data on the destructive effects of Hyperion’s sludge dumping on fish population in the Bay, but no media outlets publicized their arguments, and members of the Regional Water Control Board appeared uninterested. CWA standards alone, it appeared, were not adequate to the task of keeping L.A.’s dirty water and aerated sludge out of the Bay.
High school English teacher Howard Bennett had never been interested in sewage treatment. He was, however, interested in swimming, which he did every morning in the Santa Monica Bay. The two issues suddenly intersected for him one morning in late March 1985 when he approached the ocean for his daily paddle. “The water’s poisoned!” an unfamiliar fisherman yelled to Bennett just before he entered the surf. The outburst struck Bennett as worrying enough to merit further investigation. By chance, he had encountered Dr. Rimmon Fay, a longtime Hyperion critic and one of the two critical speakers at the March 25th public hearing just a few weeks earlier. Recalling Fay’s interest in the health of the Bay, Bennett phoned him to discuss the “poison” — and promptly got shouted at. “There’s nothing you can do about it!” the dispirited Fay howled into the receiver when Bennett suggested that they fight the decision.
Undaunted, Bennett digging through the public record and concluded that the Bay’s water was, in fact, poisoned — dangerously sullied by the primary-treated water and sludge from Hyperion. He began working the phones, writing incendiary letters, and courting the media. His efforts won the “Coalition to Stop Dumping Raw Sewage into the Ocean” a second public hearing on Hyperion that May. Much of the back and forth at these meetings was between Fay and Dr. Willard Bascom, head of the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, and it was about fish and worms. Fay contended that what Hyperion dumped from its outfalls was denuding the waters of both volume and variety of marine life. Bascom argued that the sewage was excellent fish food, and that the current ecological community was not necessarily better or worse than those of the past, just different.
Bascom’s position took a serious hit when one of his employees reported that his boss had doctored data to support the spurious “ideal fish food” argument. Nevertheless, while the Times dutifully recounted the conflicting sets of scientific evidence under discussion at the hearings, it was Bennett’s outraged interpretation of the plant’s failures that inspired heated prose and drew crowds:
The general public has been treated like a child … and has been given a false sense of security by the entire sewage disposal industry. As an English teacher it is clear to me that the sewage industry uses euphemisms to pacify the public and fool them into thinking they’re doing a good job … The sewage industry talks about its ‘primary treatment process.’ This is another euphemism. It is separation of the big pieces and not treatment at all. The general public is not to be fooled like a child. They understand that what is left after separation is still raw sewage.
Most engineers would quibble with Bennett’s interpretation of primary treatment, but protesting it is obviously less about the fish than about a government that refuses to maintain an appropriate set of relations between people and pollution, between the city’s waste, guts, and environment.
The mobilizing power of such perceived failures to respect boundaries becomes apparent with a glance at the series of L.A. Times articles on the sewage spills that plagued the city in the months following the hearing. Between July 12th and 20th, untreated sewage drained steadily from a temporary storage receptacle into the city’s concrete-lined Ballona Creek, overspilling this last-ditch boundary-securing device and depositing a total of over three thousand gallons of the mess. A story about the sewage in the storm drain ran on the front page of the Westside edition of the Times on July 21. Shortly afterward, mayor Tom Bradley finally entered the fray, reversing course and announcing plans to undertake exactly what his administration had been fighting for nearly a decade. “To achieve our goal of the cleanest possible Bay, we are determined to install a full secondary treatment system at the Hyperion Waste Treatment Plant,” Bradley stated in a press release. The $2 billion gauntlet had finally been taken up: The waiver plan was dead, and Hyperion would return to its former full secondary capacity after all.
On December 8th, 1998, Hyperion re-entered the modern era and the media spotlight. As the L.A. Times put it, the plant “is for the first time fully meeting pollution standards set 26 years ago by the federal government.” The American Public Works Association named the plant’s full-secondary, sludge-out operation to its (unranked) list of top ten American civil engineering projects of the century, but not without noting the mid-century backslide. The upgrade was represented as an accomplishment (impressive in scale), but always also as a much-belated achievement of the legally mandated bare minimum.
The final act of Hyperion’s twentieth century story can be read as parable about the potential political power of a public that feels threatened: Dumping lightly treated water five miles from the shore and raw sewage in the storm drain both sound disgusting, but they’re unlikely to cause an outbreak of dysentery, or even a sea of condoms on a popular beach. The media outrage, public response, and eventual political capitulation spurred by this transgressed boundary suggest just how unacceptable such an overflow is in the contemporary U.S., and how much these norms and expectations (of cleanliness, and of a city and its infrastructure to produce that cleanliness) have shifted since the forties. But as expectations for what a city government should be doing to protect public space from contamination have grown, faith in the technologies, engineers, and bureaucratic systems tasked with these responsibilities has crumbled. Which raises the question: What kinds of wastewater management arrangements will the public demand in the future, and what technologies and institutions will be deemed adequate to guarding the crucial boundaries between people and their wastes?
According to Google Maps, the Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility is a seven-minute drive from Hyperion. The proximity is not a coincidence: some of Hyperion’s secondary-treated wastewater is piped over to the Little facility, where it receives additional cleaning (micro-filtration and reverse osmosis and extra disinfection) for large-scale industrial and landscaping uses. At the time of this writing, the Little water isn’t being mixed into anyone’s potable water supply, but, according to strategic planning documents and Ron Wildermuth, the facility’s public relations point person, that is the long-term plan, pending public support and adequate funding.
One chilly evening in August of 2013, I joined a group tour the facility to get a firsthand view of the attempt to win hearts and minds to the fraught notion of sipping highly treated sewage. The audience was engaged, frequently interrupting with questions (When does the plant smell worst? Where else do people drink their own wastewater? What tests does the water undergo?). Wildermuth managed the onslaught with aplomb, calming nerves with his obvious competence and confidence in the plant’s operations. Heads nodded when he detailed the contours of L.A.’s looming water supply crisis (chief among the justifications for expanding the plant’s operations), and few seemed to lose interest during his exhaustive explanation of the treatment technology. No one looked disgusted, and most chuckled at the laugh lines, like when Wildermuth suggested that Little water was so healthy and pure that it would leave drinkers looking like models.
Standing on the edge of the treatment platform as the ocean breeze whipped my hair into my eyes, I peered out in the direction of Hyperion and thought of Huxley. If we were walking through the facility together, what asides and interpretations would he toss my way? He’d probably be pleased to note the lack of Malthusian flotsam, and find Wildermuth’s quirky narration of the plant’s processes fairly charming. But I doubt he’d be speaking in terms of triumphant, universal solutions to the age-old problem of dealing with sewage in cities. Widespread uptake of wastewater recycling is one potential future, but it’s certainly not inevitable. The Little facility represents a relatively new, arguably brave paradigm for sewage management, one that many environmentalists find exciting. I count myself among that number — re-using effluent makes sense from both environmental health and water supply angles, particularly in arid places like the L.A. Basin. Thanks in part to California’s ongoing drought, Angelenos and their water managers increasingly agree. The L.A. Department of Water and Power’s recent draft Urban Water Management Plan calls for a dramatically expanded water recycling program in the years to come. But a positive public reading of this plan is far from guaranteed, or necessarily stable. As Hyperion’s history suggests, both the material stuff and the meaning of infrastructures are surprisingly fluid, given all the concrete involved.
Top photo by Doc Searls