Transformer Oil Spew

by Daisy

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As I sat on my porch this afternoon I was startled out of my chair by the pairing of a clap of thunder and the crackling boom as the transformer on a pole 20 yards away exploded. From the corner of my eye, I saw the flash, and the general impression of things going this way and that.

Our power was out, of course, and there was something else, the powerful odor of petroleum. Outside in the rain puddling on the driveway, an oil sheen swirled, an iridescent rainbow of—what???

Transformer oil. Did you know that transformers, those barrel-sized cylinders on power lines that do something complicated so we can have toast contain several gallons of oil? I had no idea.

I’ve seen transformers blow before, but never one so close, never one which literally blew its top.


Before the power company’s troubleshooter arrived, I had no idea what the smell was from, where the oil had come from. He arrived in a timely manner and told us where the oil came from. “Is it dangerous?” I asked.

“Only if it’s from before 1980,” he replied. “Some of the ones before that had PCB’s in them.”

Excuse me, what? Did you just say PCB’s?

Polychlorinated biphenyl. Mmm. Tasty neurotoxic carcinogenic endocrine disruptor which doesn’t break down in the natural environment. All over my new strawberry bed filled with juicy, ripening strawberries. Somebody. Hand. Me. A. Fork.

“How old do you think that transformer is?”

“I don’t know, probably not that old?”

So there we sat. And paced. Until the electric company’s hazmat team guy came and said according to their records the transformer in question dated from July 17, 1980.

Backing up a little, yes, I had a hazmat team in my yard today. That fact alone is disconcerting, and I’m having trouble getting my mind around it. There they were, walking around, unconvincingly putting down little white mats about the size of changing mats on random puddles here and there, telling me my transformer fortunately was installed after the date when it was legal to cut transformer oil with PCB’s. I know there are worse things to happen in gardens, but I still am not smiling yet.

And what about NEW, IMPROVED transformer oil? Can it be sprayed on strawberries? ‘CAUSE IT JUST WAS.

According to the feverish research I did as soon as the power was returned, there is a newer, new tranformer oil and an older, new transformer oil. At this point, it’s all beginning to sound like 1)we know the oldest stuff (with PCBs) is bad, 2) the stuff after that (naphthenic mineral oil) is pretty bad.

Oh, and some of the newer transformer oil was contaminated with PCB’s by using the same equipment on the new stuff that was used with the PCB oil. Can we trust no one?

The black oily substance in question, from a pic taken of the inside of our transformer, not in the best of condition, I would say:


So if it isn’t PCB transformer oil, is it naphthenic mineral oil all over my yard and garden? If so, what do I do? How do I determine the safety of my fruit and vegetables? How do I know whether it’s safe for my kids to play in the dirt as they constantly do?

Am I overreacting? Underreacting?

Here they are loading up the truck with the barrel of oil they just removed from the transformer:

IMG_2109So you go organic, eschew Sevin Dust and the like. Watch the proximity of your plants to treated lumber, take care to tread softly and carefully when dealing with pests and disease.

Then a transformer blows up and sprays your food with petrochemicals.

What next?

Anyone know what to do?



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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Michelle April 28, 2014 at 6:04 am

That stinks. I personally would not eat any of the berries. If the hazmat team was out, they weren’t too sure what type of oil the transformer held. I would maybe call the Heath department. I don’t know if the EPA would do any good either. I remember hearing that the transformers had oil, I never would have imagined that one would blow up and spew oil all over. Good luck.

Abby April 28, 2014 at 6:34 am

Holy cow. I guess the hazmat team had no advice for you?

You could probably clean the berries really well with the blue Dawn dish soap, if you really want to eat them (I would probably be tempted to do that… losing homegrown strawberries is a tragedy!) but the oil will contaminate your soil and your septic system, for sure.

I’m so sorry. Is there anything legally you can do? Even just to recoup the cost of your garden?

Dawna April 28, 2014 at 7:59 am

OMG! I would be panicked too. I’m glad no one was hurt.

Legally the hazmat team should have given you a MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet). You can call the power company and request one. Don’t rely on the internet for your information as the workers may not know for sure what is in the oil mix. You can also request the hazmat team to come back out to cleanup any remaining contaminates. Depending on what the MSDS states, the soil (and the precious strawberries) may have to be removed. You can also request for them to “replace” everything damaged to the “pre-spew” state. Power companies these days are not wanting any addition bad publication so they should do as you ask.

Good Luck!

Nancy April 28, 2014 at 8:24 am

I would probably dig up & throw away everything the oil contaminated. 🙁 Better that than ingest toxic chemicals. Hope you can get some kind of compensation!!

Daisy April 28, 2014 at 8:28 am

Dawna–They didn’t offer any MSDS sheet. I got the typical (not to say they weren’t very nice, I want to stipulate) response of “Well, I used to get covered in the stuff (PCBs) from time to time and I’m ok so far.” They did say that if it killed my strawberries they would probably replace them. And I was thinking–I’m concerned about more subtle and insidious dangers than outright killing the plants! I’ve got someone coming out from the power company now since I called and requested it. They weren’t planning to send anyone out until I called them, that I know of.

Daisy April 28, 2014 at 8:32 am

Abby–No real advice. This is going to be hard, but I think the berries are off-limits. Someone from the power company is coming out and we will see. I will push for the whole megillah. I want details and tests and all they’ve got.

Maureen Foos April 29, 2014 at 6:46 am

When the power company official comes, sit down and talk to him. In the part of the yard contaminated with the oil. Or at least, request he sit down, in the dirt. You might want to stand, perhaps in a bunny suit to make the point.

Offer him fresh picked strawberries, and anything else possibly ripe to be picked at this point, that was spewed upon.

To my mind, we don’t need air /water / ground quality standards. Just require the management teams and top officials of every polluting company to inhale the air coming from the stacks, drink the water from the outflows, consume food grown in the soils, make sand castles, all on a regular basis. If we did that, we would have a clean environment.

Kate April 29, 2014 at 7:06 am

Oh my gosh….I am so sorry.
Not of this sounds good. I love how they make it sound better because of a new and improved oil. Most of what you will be told by them is simple damage control.

Below are two suggestions for detox.

Sherry April 30, 2014 at 4:49 am

What a fun day you had….not. If a hazmat team was there….lightbulb, you bet some thing more needs to be done. Kindly explain to the nice man that will be coming, that their crappy oil just sprayed all over your organic garden and yard. You do expect them to remove everything that was splattered and replaced with fresh clean organic soil, veggies and grass. Then have them come back in 3 or 6 months to see if anything was missed. But hey, look at the bright side….Ok, I cant find a bright side but I will keep looking.

annie April 30, 2014 at 6:45 am

I am so sorry for your hardship today. That is very scary. I’m not sure how to advise you other than to listen to your readers and do what you can to document the growth of your garden. Use video/pics and keep a diary. Good luck.

Laura April 30, 2014 at 6:49 am

It would be nice, since they had the oil in a drum to haul off, if you or they could get a sampling and have it taken to a lab to do an analysis to see exactly what all is in it. Sorry for your hassle and the potential loss, but thankful that neither you nor your children were close enough to have the oil spewed on you or any burns from it. I hope it turns out in your favor. I’ll be praying for this to work out well for you.

Bonnie North April 30, 2014 at 7:20 am


I absolutely share your shock and outrage at such a horrible event. Please DON’T eat anything from the soil in the vicinity of the bed and please DO investigate soil phyto-remediation ASAP!

Try reaching out to an expert in phyto-remediation, especially in the case of hydrocarbon contamination. I would STRONGLY suggest you do anything you can to get ahold of Paul Stammets. He is the number one expert in the field of mycoremediation. You can go on You Tube and check out his TED Talk, about “How Mushrooms Can Save the World” (that is not a joke, and relates directly to this problem), and try to contact him directly. He lives in the pacific northwest and runs a mushroom and supplements company, and I’m sure he’ll talk to you if you explain the severity of your predicament.

I am truly sorry this happened to you and I hope you will continue to update us and let us know what happens. Is the utility company going to do anything to protect you and your family?


Jerri April 30, 2014 at 7:32 am

Err on the side of caution. Call your county Extension Office. They can give expert advice on soil, water and contamination. Well that’s what they do here in Indiana. I would not eat the berries and I would immediately take soil samples.


Holly April 30, 2014 at 8:38 am

Was just reading a paper on how they were sequestering various toxins using specially formulated compost. Here is the link:
The idea is that they can actually tie up and neutralize harmful substances in the long carbon chains in the compost. And yeah, Paul Stamets’ book has some amazing info on the subject.

Daisy April 30, 2014 at 11:16 am

Holly–Thank you for the link. I’m going to have to learn all about this, aren’t I?

Daisy April 30, 2014 at 11:16 am

Jerri–Good idea.

Daisy April 30, 2014 at 11:18 am

Bonnie–Thank you. I’ve heard of him, but didn’t know he was into anything but growing them for food and medicine. Interesting. I’ll check it out.

Daisy April 30, 2014 at 11:20 am

Laura–I completely agree. If they had been out in the yard the lid might have landed on their heads as well as getting sprayed with petrol. About testing the tank, at first I had someone call to tell me they didn’t do testing at residences. Now, apparently they have changed their mind. I wonder why? They have also agree to test the tank. Hm.

Daisy April 30, 2014 at 11:21 am

annie–Great advice, thank you. I guess this blog is sort of like a diary. I will take more pics as well.

Daisy April 30, 2014 at 11:24 am

Sherry–Yes, I want to have testing done now and for as long as it needs to be done. I want my garden back.

Debbie J April 30, 2014 at 1:49 pm

I hate that this happened to you. I think I would get rid of the strawberry plants, relocate the bed and start over with more plants. Is getting sick or something worse worth trying to save what yu have? I will be sure and make my strawberry bed far away form the transformer in our back yard. I don’t like petroleum products anyway. Not on or in my body!

William April 30, 2014 at 4:47 pm

Something to keep in mind. If the SHTF that oil can be used to run diesel engines if needed.

Olivia April 30, 2014 at 5:11 pm

The company should make your property safe. This is no time to sit and wait for help or to try and clean the soil yourself. They are legally required to repair your property. If all else fails, go to the EPA, they should have been notified of the spill anyway. Also, mention you are contacting the local TV stations……………….

Daisy April 30, 2014 at 6:07 pm

Olivia–That makes sense to me. Sitting and waiting is hard for something like this which probably gets harder to fix when nothing is done for a period of time. I am certainly not qualified to remediate oil spills and I would say few homeowners are. I did make a report to the EPA. I wonder why more people don’t. This must happen fairly often. The spill crew called the oil “mineral oil” which makes it sound like that clear stuff you get at the drugstore, but I assure you, the black, smelly molasses in that tank isn’t something you would squirt into a baby’s bathwater. Maybe the terminology reassures some people into thinking its no big deal, so they don’t become concerned. I guess, technically, you could call any fossil fuel “mineral oil” . . .

Daisy April 30, 2014 at 6:09 pm


Daisy April 30, 2014 at 6:17 pm

Debbie J–I know you’re right. It’s funny, I don’t even like to use vaseline because it’s petroleum-based, and now I have a truly filthy version of it on my food.

Nathan April 30, 2014 at 8:55 pm

So sorry to hear of this pridicament. I certainly would be hopping mad if a non-enviromentally friendly service, such as the local power company, wiped out all my blood, sweat, and tears of my family’s food supply. Bravo for having at least a little sense of humor about it.

Daisy May 1, 2014 at 5:59 am

Nathan–I just hope I can trust them to be responsible, ethical, truthful, and to do the right thing. PCBs have a long history of coverups and outright deceit behind them (does the name Monsanto send a chill up your spine? It does mine) and I hope not to be the latest in a long line of victims of corporate chicanery.

D May 1, 2014 at 7:51 pm

From my experience, insurance-type people will sit and wait, because if you don’t complain or file a claim, they might get away with not paying. The city/company that owns the transformer may be self-insured with a bond, vs going thru a company, but they likely have coverage for equipment failure, errors and omissions, etc that you may be able to tap into. Don’t wait. There are often limitations on filing claims and follow-up that will render you unable to file later.

I wouldn’t want soil remediation, but SITE remediation, where if necessary they pay for fresh soil and sod to be hauled in to replace your garden and lawn, from a trusted vendor of your choice (vs letting them bring you a load of….something….that may or may not be organic). I would want them to pay for decontamination of fences, buildings and gutters on those buildings, and for that to be done BEFORE the soil was removed. I would want to file a claim for purchasing produce to replace that lost in that beautiful garden.

I would request in writing that all this be done, as well as a request for copies of analysis on the fluid at an accredited lab.

I would document in photos and in a notebook or binder EVERY SINGLE discussion, phonecall, receipt and promise, noting the time, date, and who you spoke to, as well as any goal dates or other information. That information alone can spare you a court appearance if things get nasty, and lawyers ADORE clients who are well-prepared to support their case, because most people don’t and if you show up armed with documentation, the defendant will often crumple in this sort of case. That’s what happened in my case: They settled out of court, and while it cost me a lot of time and emotional energy, I did get much more of my expenses and losses covered than I would have otherwise.

It seemed like the best approach was meticulous record-keeping, visibly, and pushy politeness about demanding things be solved to my satisfaction. The guys loading the oil aren’t the ones who will matter much in the solution for you, but the person coming to discuss it with you will be KEY, and you might consider recording your conversation with him (with his knowledge).

Sorry for the length of this….I just know how draining my own experience (following arson) was, in dealing with insurance etc…

Daisy May 1, 2014 at 9:11 pm


Kylee Baumle May 3, 2014 at 8:27 pm

Daisy, my heart goes out to you. I hope this gets truly resolved in a way that restores your confidence in the integrity of your property. This brought to mind the experience of friends of ours from Switzerland, who were advised not to eat anything they grew in their gardens in 1986 and 1987, following the Chernobyl incident. That happened in April 1986, but they had to exercise caution for several years. Your incident isn’t the scope and size of Chernobyl, but it’s just as devastating, for YOU personally. You’re in my thoughts and prayers!

Daisy May 4, 2014 at 4:39 am

Kylee Baumle–Thanks, Kylee. Thanks also for reminding me that I’m certainly not the only one to have had to abandon a harvest. How frightening that was for so many, and a caution for all of us.

ellen January 20, 2015 at 6:02 pm

this is funny I just called the elec. co today the 3 transformers at the end of my drive way well one or more is leaking oil they said they would send someone out today I had to go out so I don’t know if someone came out or not but now I am worried about it think I will call tomorrow and see if someone came to check it out or not Luckily I don’t have a garden there but I walk my dog and she has to smell it and walk through it so guess I will be walking her in a different direction, as for your berries I would not eat them its a shame but better safe than sorry and if you can afford to have your soil tested some towns will do it for free maybe the company will pay for it Good luck stay safe Also I would not trust their word Look what happened to all those men who got sick after 9-11 when they were told the air quality was safe

Daisy January 20, 2015 at 6:41 pm

ellen–Yuck! I’m glad you noticed it. Ask them the age of the transformer–when it was installed. They should have those records. Ask them to test the soil for PCBs. Even if it post-dates the ban on PCBs in transformers, it could be cross-contaminated with unacceptable levels of PCBs from equipment or illegal mixing of PCBs with non-PCB oil. If it isn’t PCB oil, it still may have unacceptable amounts of other chemicals like EPH (extractable petroleum hydrocarbons). If they refuse to test, you can get your local EPA/Department of Environment and Conservation out to test the soil. Good luck and please let me know how it goes!

Tim November 13, 2016 at 6:47 am

I had a similar problem decades ago. Pre 1980. Never thought about it. I live in a area of homes that were built in the early 1900’s. I will have to contact my utility provider and see if they would do a analysis.

Daisy November 13, 2016 at 9:05 am

Tim–If you get them to do an analysis, I’d like to know how it turns out.

kathy k January 29, 2017 at 8:43 pm

Hi we had a large amount of transformer oil spill all over our back yard. It happened 5 days ago. They have cut down all our plants,trees, dug up the grass and removed a large amunt of dirt, bbq, patio funiture,artificial grass, all ruined. We are left with dirt at this point. I am wondering what they did for you and your yard?

Daisy January 29, 2017 at 9:33 pm

kathy k–I’m so sorry this happened to you. In my case, the utility company refused to do anything at all. The local Dept. of Environment and Conservation, however, conducted a site remediation, removing the soil and replacing it with clean soil. Do you have a public or a private utility, and in what part of the country is the spill located? Did they test for PCBs?

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