Originally Published
Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 05:38:10 AM EST

Dry limestone crunches beneath my feet, and the hot Louisiana sun beats down past huge racks, each an impenetrable maze of plumbing, wiring, and catwalks. The very ground vibrates with a low mechanical hum, the echo of countless motors and pumps. In all the landscape there is no sign of life; not a blade of grass, no birds, not even insects. I might be on Mars for the sterility of it all, except that I can look down one road -- only one! -- and far away, past a chain-link fence and state highway, spy the verdant canopy of a lowland swamp.

There are several hundred places like this in Louisiana alone, where humans have ripped Nature from her mooring in order to plant a testament to practicality and pure engineering. Like demons, they all have different personalities yet are instantly recognizable as members of a single, unique class. Nothing else built by humans is quite like a chemical plant.

All chemical plants are built on a similar model. The "racks" are like reverse play-houses built for the Jolly Green Giant, with steel-mesh floors separated by 20 or 30 feet, sometimes rising 10 or more levels high. The lower levels are accessed by steel-mesh stairs, the higher ones by more stairs or heavy open-cage elevators that are human-rated but really designed for moving equipment. The racks are arranged in blocks like city apartments, separated by streets that usually are named. The racks support holding tanks and reactors which are interconnected by a bewildering maze of plumbing and wired with thousands of sensors and controls. Control rooms may be blockhouses at a distance on the ground or tin shacks high up in the racks, near to the processes they attend.

Welcome to our facility. Drop your pants and bend over.

Before you can see the racks and the plumbing, you have to get in. Southern hospitality notwithstanding, the Plant's first acknowledgement of your merely human existence will be The Sign. It comes in variations but the tone never changes:

By entering this facility you agree that you and your vehicle may be searched at any time. The following safety equipment is REQUIRED for entry into this facility:

  • Hard Hat (approved type)
  • Safety glasses with side shields
  • Chemical goggles
  • Respirator (approved type)
  • Valid safety pass
The following items are not permitted within the facility under any circumstances:
  • Illegal drugs or alcohol
  • Firearms
  • Cigarette lighters
  • Cameras (unless accompanied by pass)
The guard will put his hand on a Bible and swear before all nine billion names of God that the camera ban is to prevent industrial espionage, but few of these places really have any secrets worth stealing. I've always believed the real problem is that they don't want June and Ward finding out what is going on only a few miles from the school, playground, and new subdivision.

Now listen while we tell you how safe you're going to be while you're here.

Before you can get that safety pass, you usually have to take some "training." This will be a little slideshow or video which reveals useful information about how to stay alive and out of the way while you're foraging in the bowels of the Plant.

At Big Chemical Company, Inc., your safety is a top priority. In order to ensure your safety, we need for you to follow a few rules.

  • {usual safety equipment blurb}
  • This map shows the emergency assembly areas at BCC. You should maintain an awareness of the nearest assembly areas.
  • In case of emergency, park your vehicle by the side of the road and leave the keys in the ignition.
  • BCC is equipped with numerous windsocks. In case of emergency note the wind direction and proceed on foot to the nearest assembly area which you can reach by going crosswind from your location.
  • BCC uses [particularly noxious chemical] in its processes. If you smell [perfectly ordinary smell] immediately put on your respirator and proceed crosswind to the nearest assembly area.
  • The BCC siren announces all emergencies. Always be aware of the emergency code for your area! For example, here is the sound of an alarm for the [noxious chemical] unloading area:

That's code 3-5-1. You will be issued a card which lists the other [four dozen] such codes in use at BCC. When the emergency has cleared, one long blast will signal that it is safe to return to work:


  • BCC maintains a strict lockout/tagout policy. Never remove a lock or tag from a control yourself. It is your responsibility to remove your own lock or tag from a control when your work is complete. Failure to observe lockout/tagout rules can result in uncontrolled energy releases and/or injury [ed: things going boom and people getting killed]

Pay no attention to the guy behind the curtain, or his wallet.

So you don your hard hat and get your safety card and pull your vehicle through the gate and past the truck scale, following the map of the Plant to the intersection of J street and 3rd Avenue. It's now, if you have made a habit of flipping through the Grainger catalog, that you will start adding up how much it cost to build the place. And you'll quickly run out of digits in your mental calculator as you do so.

Industrial equipment is fabulously expensive compared to consumer goods, and here you have an entire city of fabulously expensive industrial crap. The budget for valves alone will be millions of dollars. Add in a few tanks (each of which cost more than a typical residential house) and the sensors and wiring stainless-steel piping and energy utilization and it's very easy to reach the US$100,000,000 mark and start getting dizzy. It's not unusual for a Plant to cost more than $1 billion, and if you have the misfortune to work on a machine that's at a bottleneck in their production you're likely to hear some variant of this:

Well, son, you take all the time you need to fix that, but just bear in mind that we're losing $400,000 an hour while this line is down.

OOOOOH, what's that SMELL?

It's impossible to keep volatile chemicals completely contained, and most Plants have a distinctive smell. In some the smell is oily and sulphurous, in others sharp and acidic; the truly terrifying Plants are the ones that don't smell at all. No smell doesn't mean there's nothing in the air, it just means that you don't get any warning that there is.

Some Plants have pandemic corrosion problems. Chemicals eat away at the concrete foundations, they eat away at the steel mesh so there are dangerous holes in the rack scaffolding, and they eat holes in the employees' skin which are passed off as "that damn rash." I have seen type 316 stainless steel (which is a better grade than anything you have in your kitchen) turn brown with rust in a matter of weeks.

Other places are so spotlessly clean that they are more worrisome than the overtly dirty ones. One local Plant has a density of safety and, interestingly, anti- industrial-espionage signage that reminds one of the adverts on a NASCAR racer. In the obligatory safety video you are reminded that

Here at BCC we work with [omigod] which reacts violently on contact with water or air. WARNING TO WOMEN OF CHILD-BEARING AGE: [omigod] is a powerful teratogen, and if you are or might be pregnant you MUST consult with a Plant nurse before entering operating areas where [omigod] is handled.

I propose Localroger's Law of Plant Safety: The more safety notices you see in a place, the less safe the place is.

Plants take pride in their safety records because safety is so hard to achieve, but it's a rare thing to see the "days since last lost-time accident" sign in front of any industrial facility with four digits. Industrial accidents happen all the time and unless they claim multiple lives or spill out beyond the perimeter fence, they aren't news.

Unbearable Sameness of Being

Plants don't win architecture awards. The one concession to aesthetics which some Plants make is that they are located on oversized tracts of land, surrounded by berms of earth and trees, so as to be as invisible as possible. On a more practical level this also reduces the inevitable damage if something fall down go boom. However, people like to live close to their workplaces and even when they are located in the middle of nowhere, Plants have a magnetic attraction which tends to cause towns to form around them.

A small percentage of Plants will try to show off by having a really fine administration building. Since these places never build enough offices this monument will often be surrounded by "temporary" office space in the form of double-wide trailers, most so old that the floors are going soft and the roofs leaking. I've been into nuclear power Plants where the all-important radiation and safety screening is done in this kind of housing.

In the working areas of the Plant, there is no consideration at all. Functionality determines form. Color may be used to indicate danger or access restrictions, but is mostly dictated by process needs. Bare metal rules the day. The layout may encode those valuable trade secrets you're warned about when they "borrow" your camera, but the basic language of tanks, pipes, valves, pump motors, racks, wiring trays, and whatnot never varies. If the control room is a blockhouse, worry. There is a reason it's not in a tin shack closer to the reactors.

You will probably be there to work on something -- there are few other reasons for a human to ever enter such a place. The component, module, process, or machine you're there to manage will exist on a spiderweb of support and dependent functionality. No matter at what scale your responsibility lies, you will manage something that eventually merges into an impenetrable vastness far beyond your comprehension. Your charges will take power, chemicals, and human input and turn them into different forms of power, different chemicals, and annunciators for humans to read. And you will never be granted more than the most passing explanation of where the inputs came from, or for what the outputs are used.

Inasmuch as functional things are beautiful -- and to some of us they are -- the Plant shyly hides its beauty, cloaking the clarity of its existence behind its own sheer scale. Somewhere there are engineers who understand the processes it marshals, who can tell you every reaction, pressure gradient, transport mechanism, and staging area from the raw materials dump to the rail-car loading barn; these same engineers wouldn't know the purpose of an actual valve or sensor if they tripped over it. The techs who keep it working can find every nut and bolt blindfolded but don't really know why it's all arranged the way it is. The totality of its existence is beyond mere human consideration.


Humans fuck up. Like Microsoft says, it's not a bug, it's a feature.

In Plant parlance a fuckup is called an "unintentional energy release." This euphemism hides the basic problem with Plants, which is their sheer scale. If you trip on the sidewalk, you may get some scrapes; you may even break a bone; if you are really unlucky you may fall onto someone else and break one of their bones. Odds are you won't blow out all the windows in town, or kill thousands of people. Walking is a low-energy activity in the grand scheme of things.

Get into a car and have a similar fuckup, and you can easily kill yourself and an arbitrary number of strangers. It's a matter of the energies at your disposal; when misdirected, the thousand-kilo car travelling at 50 kph can do vastly more harm than your 100 kilo body going 10 kph.

In a Plant, the energies are phenomenal. Huge tanks are superheated and pressurized; huge tanks of toxic and explosive chemicals lounge around waiting to be tapped at the wrong time or spring leaks. I have picked up the pieces after an operater added the water to the acid instead of the other way around, and a 20,000-pound capacity tank the size of a living room danced around a a process area bashing the crap out of everything in its way. I've visited a Plant days after a catalytic cracker exploded, killing seven, blowing out all the windows in the town that grew up around the Plant, and tearing up everything in the facility except the blockhouse-like control room. I've given last rites to equipment that was designed for 110 VAC operation but given 440 VAC instead.

That's not even to mention incidents like Bhopal.

Plants are built the way they are to harness economies of scale; efficiency is their purpose, which is why they are ugly, smelly, and ubiquitous. Yet there is a fundamental danger in the whole philosophy behind Plants, because by their nature they require vast concentrations of energy to work, and when that energy is released by accident the consequences are horrible.

And this concludes our tour of Oz.

My purpose here isn't to call for some action. I really don't know what could be done about the Plant problem; we depend on them now to such a degree that we can't exist without them. But I think it's important to know what the infrastructure of your life looks like. I know a lot of tofu-munching PETA member vegetarians who have no idea how dangerous the processes are that make the vinyl and PVC they would rather use than leather. And i know right-wing Rush Limbaugh worshippers who have no idea what shortcuts are taken in the name of efficiency because the possibility of a few deaths doesn't impact the bottom line quite as severely as a really effective safety program.

I don't know if there is an alternative to the Plant. But I think people should know what they are like. You should be aware of what is done to provide you with PVC plumbing and HDPE milk cartons and gasoline and even silicon chips. You should be allowed to appreciate it in all its ghastly splendor, and to pass an informed judgement on it.

There have been many people who died because they could not do that. This is my testament in their honor, such as it is.

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