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:
Then a transformer blows up and sprays your food with petrochemicals.
Anyone know what to do?