Last night, Chevron began moving two of six 500,000-pound coke drums -- that's oil industry lingo for processing units -- up from the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro to its refinery in El Segundo. Technically, Chevron's drums moved across the city in much the same way the Space Shuttle Endeavor and Michael Heiser's Levitated Mass boulder did last year, but like a D-list version of L.A.'s great street-closing spectacles of late, this cavalcade was met with virtually zero fanfare. And that's just the way Chevron likes it.
It's a surreal scene that's become familiar in L.A. -- huge chunks of technology (and sometimes art) infrastructure components on a slow crawl through a densely urbanized area, requiring power line relocations, temporary traffic detours and, sometimes, in the case of Chevron's coke drums, years of preparation, and arrangements for permits through city utility, environmental and traffic agencies. The unseen orchestration of people, planning and street closures can go completely unnoticed or it can create a party in the street. Chevron's stealthy move last night falls under the former category. But late-night drivers or random looky-loos awake between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., and located anywhere near Pacific Coast Highway in the South Bay, may have noticed the 28-foot-tall block of steel machinery slowly creeping down the street.
Chevron's senior representative for public affairs, Jeff Wilson, was on hand just as the drums rolled off the lot and began moving up the PCH. "This has been in the works for years," said Wilson, emphasizing Chevron's massive neighborhood outreach push to address any concerns the community had about potential dangers or disruption. "We went to everyone -- the city council, the rotary club, all 400 plus businesses along the route. We organized a street team of volunteers to knock on doors. We sent out 1,800 mailers. Whatever we had to do to make that connection."
The new coke drums will replace obsolete ones that date back to the '60s. They arrived at the port two weeks ago and, since then, they've moved inch by inch via a barge, a temporary bridge, cranes, atop a special self-propelled modular trailer or SPMT (the same kind of mega-vehicle that moved the shuttle Endeavor), and -- along Pacific Coast Highway -- on a Caltrans-approved "California Dolly" truck that sports programmable, monster-sized wheels so that the bed of the trailer is always flat, even over bumps and hills.
"No, it's not as majestic as the shuttle," says Wilson of the massive undertaking, "but if you think about it, we've got six shuttles to move."
In addition to all the cops and Chevron's own engineers and other folks involved with the project (and their excited but shivering friends and family), public crowds were thin but surprisingly present, despite the chilly temperatures. Handfuls of onlookers in spots along the PCH came out with cameras or kids in tow, proving that L.A. is either starving for nighttime street life or full of bored insomniacs.
One old-timer trying to keep warm with his thermos of coffee explained, "I saw the shuttle and got some nice pictures. But this? They're making a far bigger deal than it needs to be," and added, "I just want to see it roll, then I'm going home and going to bed. At least I got a front row seat this time."
Curious folks, bored insomniacs and oil-industry infrastructure wonks (you know who you are) who appreciate engineering feats of this caliber will have two more chances to see the coke drums on their slow parade next Wednesday, Feb. 27 and the Wednesday after on March 6th.