by Deirdre Wolf
The USA Petroleum refinery is nestled snugly at the base of
the Ventura River Valley, a valley of contrasts, where oil derricks
stand amidst scattered lemon groves, and a persistent marine
layer is kept at bay by the luminous blue skies leading to the
Ojai Valley beyond.
Like many areas of Ventura County, it has remained mostly unchanged
since the plant's original opening back in 1953, then operated
by Shell Chemical Corporation. It was once a haven where industry
and agriculture fused and flourished, a place where legendary
oil magnate J. Paul Getty made his mark.
Today the area could be considered a wasteland, but for the abstract
beauty that lures photographers and curiosity seekers alike.
Whether it's the rusted spheres and towers of the refinery or
the oil derricks concealed amid the palms and the sprawling hillsides,
the area beholds a haunting and surreal atmosphere, serving as
a visual reminder of its prosperous past.
Shrouded by oleander bushes and chain link wire fencing stands
the plant's main building, a barren block of empty offices and
a main desk inhabited by a skeleton staff of one, Will Barrett,
one of the plant's very first employees and more than likely,
its last. He has seen the plant transform from its infancy in
1953 to its heyday in the 80s, and finally to its current ghostly
"The changes have been so gradual, that when they finally
happen, you don't really notice," he says. His formal title
is Terminal Manager.
"But now terminal means 'the end.' A little play on words,"
he chuckles. He now oversees the demolition process from a tired
and empty office, once bustling with co-workers and a buzzing
While the industrial landscape may be a photographer's perfect
backdrop, the USA Petroleum refinery has had little luck in luring
potential buyers to purchase the 96-acre property, which has
been up for sale since 1984. Approximately three offers have
been made in the last 18 years, all of which have fallen through.
One of the most promising was made back in 1992 with a Pakistani
firm, which planned on dismantling the refinery, then shipping
it on to Karachi for re-assembly. In the meantime, the demolition
team has been slowly removing the plant's structures, which the
company has been selling off as scrap metal. There are no immediate
plans for the property. USA Petroleum may develop the 96 acres
themselves and sell off different parts of the property, said
Barrett. Plans for the property have covered a broad spectrum
of ideas from a school, to business parks, but still the refinery
stands firm, even if it is a shadow of its former self.
Barrett has witnessed all of the plant's triumphs and ordeals.
He keeps on display the plant's early brochures, still in immaculate
condition after almost 50 years. Inside the brochure is a photograph
of Will Barrett himself, then only 19 years old, who ended up
working at the Shell plant quite by mistake.
"I wanted to apply for a job in construction," he recalls
with a grin, "but I walked into the wrong office, the Shell
The Shell Chemical Corporation originally produced ammonia fertilizers
at the plant. It wasn't until 1975, when Petrochem acquired
the plant, that the oil refinery itself was built, operated by
USA Petroleum, leading the plant into its glory days of the early
80s. It was the blockage of a crucial $100 million expansion
that forced Petrochem/USA Petroleum to close the plant's doors
While the sun has long since set on the refinery's golden era,
all is not so quiet on the set. Film crews for movies like "The
Power Rangers" and "Air America" have made the
most of the refinery's interesting setting. Fashion and landscape
photographers alike, have been inspired by the unusual colors,
structures, and surroundings of the refinery.
Barrett, a semi-professional photographer himself, has been inspired
time and again by the rusty metallic hues of his work environment.
With the demolition process moving along slowly, and the future
of its 96 acres uncertain, the plant remains a ghost of days
long past. Born from vast and sprawling lemon groves and home
to a once thriving refinery, a resurrection is imminent. As
for what it will reincarnate itself into remains the great mystery.
© 2002 The Ojai Valley News
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