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NEO GEO | So SoCal

Life in the Pits

June 16, 1996|Kathleen Moloney

It's barely morning when I pull into the parking lot behind the Page Museum on the 6th Street side of the La Brea Tar Pits. Birds chirp. The grass glistens with dew. And, as always, the thick smell of crude tar is everywhere, sweetened today by blooming jacaranda.

For hundreds of thousands of years, tar bubbled to the surface here unchecked. Then, in 1948, Harry Bent Sims, the architect responsible for the landscape design of the museum's park, tamed the viscous goo by trapping it underground in well-like sumps. The sumps prevent the formation of rogue tar lakes, but fill up every few months. So this morning there's a huge tanker truck at the edge of the park, tended by two guys in bright white Tyvek jumpsuits. As I approach, the stocky young guy dons elbow-length black rubber gloves; his thinner, older partner hefts a pickax.

"I'm David and he's Larry," offers the younger one. "We don't shake hands on this job." Today, Larry Ramirez and David Bushong will fill their truck with 2,500 gallons of sticky crude tar siphoned from the 10 underground sumps in Rancho La Brea and deliver it to a refinery, where it will be transformed into fuel oil and other petroleum-based products.

Ramirez grapples with the first sump. "Somebody put kitty litter over this one when the tar started coming up--sealed it pretty good," he says, freeing the lid with a vicious tug from the ax and positioning a 25-foot-long black hose over the hole. Sweat beads on his brow. "You have to keep the hose right above the surface of the tar, or it clogs immediately," he he explains. He's worked for Martin Environmental Services, the company contracted to clean the sumps, for 15 years. "The first time I came here I was amazed they trapped crude tar like this. People stop to ask what we're doing. I just tell them we're pumping oil."

Ramirez lowers the hose into the 20-foot-deep well. Inside the truck, Bushong flips a switch. An incredibly loud sucking noise erupts, followed by palpable ground movement--a machine-made earthquake. Mother Nature, apparently, doesn't want her treasures siphoned. Bushong hops out of the shaking truck and helps Ramirez steady the hose. "There's 20 inches of vacuum pressure pumping through here," he yells. "That's enough to suck the skin off your hand."

Glasses fogged, spatters of tar flecking his face, Ramirez moves to the next sump. It takes about an hour to pump each hole, which makes for a long day. When the work is done, Ramirez takes off his disposable jumpsuit. "I go through 10 of these every time I'm here. It keeps the truck clean if I change all the time."

In the heat of the afternoon, Bushong and Ramirez leave Rancho La Brea for DeMenno/Kerdoon, an oil refining company in Compton. The Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 binds the Page Museum and Martin Environmental to recycle the tar, a precedent set long ago by local Indians who waterproofed boats and baskets with it. "It was an all-purpose adhesive from the gods as far as they were concerned," says Chris Shaw, collections manager at Rancho La Brea.

Of the 2,500 gallons of raw tar that Ramirez and Bushong deliver to DeMenno/Kerdoon this afternoon, 90% is water. The remainder will be refined into everything from "plugs" for roofing asphalt to fuel oil for ships. The museum, it turns out, isn't the only place that brings tar to the refinery. "We receive materials from apartment buildings, underground garages and businesses all along the Wilshire Corridor," says Bonnie Booth, a manager at the refinery.

"That place," she declares, "is full of oil."

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