Transformer Oil: Strawberry Field or Brownfield?

by Daisy on 04/30/2014

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I feel bad to be shedding tears over this when there is so much truly wrong in the world, but I admit, I have cried over this. Big fat messy tears.

I have wondered if I can ever garden this piece of land again, if my loved-to-distraction gardens, the very basis of my contribution to this website, is finished.

Even if no PCBs are detected in the transformer oil, no matter what amount of industrial oil of whatever kind was rained down on my home and yard, it isn’t what I want in my food, the food I put on my children’s plates.

No one I have talked to about this incident has had any idea there are gallons of industrial oil in transformers. We don’t think about them, except when they fail and we have power outages. Did you know they’re full of oil? Did you know they can catch on fire, throw large pieces of metal into your yard? Look out into your yard and see if you can see the closest transformer. Is there anything in its proximity that you don’t want covered in a layer of fossil fuel? Do you have thunderstorms where you live and lightning that strikes tall things? If you answered yes to those last two questions, then you might want to start thinking about this issue.

Is there anything in your yard you don’t want this landing on after it has been blown into the air by an explosion?

IMG_2090How about wildlife? Do you love wildlife? One of my children who loves birds stood at the window yesterday as we “visited” our own house (I’ve moved us out temporarily while we figure out what is going on) and watched one of her beloved robins eat a worm from the contaminated area. “Is the bird going to get sick from eating those worms?” she asked.

This happened Sunday, today is Wednesday and some of the worst-hit strawberry leaves and the leaves of my Calycanthus floridus are turning belly up and turning brown:

IMG_4892

IMG_4895

And just to torture myself, here’s a sample of what we won’t be eating:

IMG_2110 IMG_2113 IMG_2115I’m also afraid to eat the beautiful lettuce.

IMG_2116

Or spinach.IMG_2117I’m not eating anything from the garden right now. And I really, really, really miss it.

I think we all need to think about what we would miss if our transformers explode.

 



{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Claire April 30, 2014 at 2:43 pm

That really, really, really, really stinks. I don’t blame you for not wanting to eat from that area. It doesn’t bring back your garden, but do you think the power company (or whoever owns the transformers) would be willing to compensate you for damages? Maybe calling their customer service or hotline would work. Then again, how do you put a price on that? Sorry to hear about this…

Daisy April 30, 2014 at 6:15 pm

Claire–Thank you. It stinks in more ways than one! Parts of the yard smell like a mechanic’s bay. I finally had someone call me today, to say something other than ‘we’ll send you something in the mail about sending out an adjuster.’ You can’t put a price on the joy of picking a bowl of homegrown organic strawberries with your children, in your own garden? It’s priceless.

Angela May 1, 2014 at 8:07 am

Try contacting the state pollution control agency if you don’t get an adequate response from the power company quickly. The power company should be paying to have the contaminated soil taken out, hauled away/safely disposed of, and replaced, as well as compensating you for the value of your lost plants, at the very least. And I’d see if the PCA could tell me more about what the requirements are for the legal disposal of old transformers, and/or the requirements for remediation if some were illegally dumped or buried, in case I needed to argue with the power company over what actions they should be taking.

Loss of use of agricultural land during the growing season is also something you can be compensated for, depending on the circumstances — if a utility or public agency has to use someone’s farmland to dig up a pipe or access infrastructure outside of an existing utility easement (which should be on record in your county if there is one), and the use delays planting or compacts the soil during the growing season, or something like that, he can ask for the value lost for the whole season, not just the two weeks or two months until the immediate condition is remedied, because he can’t just necessarily plant all his corn two months late and expect a reasonable harvest for that year. I’m sure the laws on this vary from state to state, and may be worth very little on a small garden plot compared to a big field, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

Your loss is such a low dollar amount compared to what utilities are usually working with that it may be worth adding up the costs yourself and just asking for a flat amount based on quotes for remediation and the value of the plants and lost food, since that saves the power company the considerable expense of sending out an independent appraiser, hiring a contracter to do the actual work (which may require a complicated and time-consuming bidding process), as well as a bunch of admin work on their end.

(I’m not a lawyer or anything, but I do work with land acquisition for a public utility, and I know when we are offering compensation to folks whose land we need to use temporarily, all of these things are taken into consideration to ensure that the compensation is fair.)

Daisy May 1, 2014 at 8:20 am

Angela–Thanks very much. This is the sort of thing I need to learn. I appreciate it greatly.

Beth May 1, 2014 at 4:56 pm

I would contact your state or county HazMat dept, and the Public Utilities Commission and a the various TV stations and newspapers in your area. This stinks! Seems like there should be some sort of replacement system for these known poison bombs. Hoping you get answers soon and that the clean up goes quickly and healthfully.

Daisy May 1, 2014 at 5:51 pm

Beth–I’ve contacted the state department of environment and conservation. I’ll have to look into the other. Funny you should say that about tv, I just had a friend in news ask me if I was interested, but at this point I’m waiting for it to play out. I do think people should be aware of the dangers of transformers, though. Personally I had no idea this could happen.

Gavi May 1, 2014 at 6:01 pm

I’m So sorry this happened …
My advice to you would be to retain an attorney.
And NOT discuss this on the internet.

Daisy May 1, 2014 at 6:27 pm

Gavi–Thank you. I appreciate the advice.

D May 1, 2014 at 9:40 pm

Another comment re TV/media: I would suggest you avoid going to the media as a first resort, AND I would make a comment to the adjuster to the effect that you’d like to work it out with the company and avoid a media circus or legal process if possible. And that you are sure that they are willing to work with you to resolve the mess and restore your peace of mind AND your land. (Flattery, despite what my mother always said, sometimes DOES get you things…)

I WOULD, however, second the advice to retain an attorney or at least consult with one, and drop that bit of information into a conversation as well. I know it sounds like mixed advice, but legal cases don’t have to be screaming matches or battles for absurd settlements, just expert advice on how to proceed and how to protect your investments and equity, both sweat- and property-. Nothing is quite as unsettling or as motivating as a calm, efficient, bloody-minded woman with legal backing and good documentation! 😉

Adjusters, from my vantage point, are there to make sure the insurance company pays out enough to keep you mostly off their backs and not enough to cut into their profit margin too badly. They will grill you about details and ask you to repeat your information, and in my experience generally try to make out that what you had was not worth what you say it was. You might get a sympathetic one, and that will be a great help. Ask what the time-frame is to settle your claim (I had a year, which seems like a long time, but things can drag on and eat up that time…you want something done efficiently and effectively, and you just KNOW they want the same, and will do so professionally and briskly and well…..)

They want documentation of value, and proof of value and all that sort of impossible stuff for things like “good organic soil” and will default to “normal values” (ie a bag of lettuce costs $2, or whatever), so you might also want to scout around for local organic supporters, ideally at something like an ag extension office or university or something similar, vs a more “treehugger” type place (sorry, I know that sounds dismissive, but in my experience, it was how adjusters tend to think…and they will be the ones you need to convince)

Angela has good advice. If you do go the route of totaling up your loss and requesting a payout, be careful you don’t underestimate the work/time/material, because she is right that it is probably a very low-dollar claim against the company’s usual situations, and it would be wrong to low-ball your own expenses when this is entirely not your fault. I’d also suggest you make it known that ALL you want is what you HAD, not more, or less, and that is entirely reasonable, and in my opinion would be a another point to stress in conversations. You aren’t trying to profit, just to return to your baseline normal.

I’m so sorry you have to deal with this. My own experience with insurance and disaster was hard in many ways, and I wish for you that yours is speedily and effectively put behind you so you can regain your comfort and eat your strawberries in peace.

Daisy May 1, 2014 at 10:54 pm

D–Bless you. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your wisdom, which I’m sure was hard-earned. This is a learning experience and I have a lot yet to learn. I’m absorbing.

BrownThumbMama May 2, 2014 at 10:18 am

Ugh. I’m mourning over the loss of all that tasty food, too! What a wise community you have–I agree that you should be compensated and your land restored. Keep us posted on how everything goes.

Daisy May 2, 2014 at 12:29 pm

BrownThumb–Yep. I’ve never had to stand and stare at ripening strawberries and just watch them rot. I’ll keep everyone posted.

D May 2, 2014 at 1:59 pm

Suggestion: Photograph them, then pick them and weigh them and keep records of what you lose/can’t eat.
You might want to wait til you talk to the adjuster though, before you remove things from the garden.

Burnetta (Woolson) Bennett May 3, 2014 at 7:19 am

All I can say is I am frustrated over what is in our world now and crying with you.

sandi May 3, 2014 at 7:20 am

I just love your website, Daisy. I’m not sure what I would do if I were in your shoes. I realize that you want your garden repaired and compensated for your yummy fresh food supplies, as I would also. The problem with this is all the company will do, as in other cases, is another raise in utility costs for everyone. They don’t take it out of their own wallets as they should. It’s a catch twenty-two. Every time a company or business has an incident, they tend to claim it on insurance and that not only raises the insurance prices but aso the pice of the products for the consumers. It’s a nasty world out there now days and the innocent always pays for things happening nin one way or another.

John C May 3, 2014 at 9:28 am

I only have a few tomatoes in a raised bed, but would be unhappy if they were lost. I can’t imagine losing everything planted – the hydrangeas that remind me of my childhood, the day lilies from my wife’s late mother’s garden.

We’re fortunate that our 40-year-old house is in an area with underground utilities (inside the subdivision) but it’s aerial cable the couple of miles back to the substation and we’ve been in the dark when a storm took down trees a mile away. The transformers here are on ground-level concrete slabs (the nearest one is across the street) and are unlikely to be hit by lightning – not something we thought about when we bought the house, but considering your experience we seem to have chosen a good location.

Hope that you can get the contaminated soil removed and replaced.

Holly May 3, 2014 at 9:43 am

I agree utility companies should be held accountable, but this could also be an opportunity to see if you can accomplish bioremediation in situ. Your yard is a microcosm of all the “big” bad things going on in the world, so mourning is certainly not out of place. In-place bioremediation has advantages in that it requires no further fossil fuels to be used to dig and move the existing soil. I believe it takes less than a year for the toxins to be bound into neutral elements. Anyway, it might be something to do if you are having to sit around waiting on others.

Bonnie North May 3, 2014 at 11:36 am

Hi Daisy,

I’ve just sent messages to Paul Stamets, and Tradd Cotter, both of whom are experts in the arena of mycoremediation. I explained your situation to them, and I hope they will respond soon. If they do, what is the most direct means by which they may contact you? I’ll keep you posted if I hear from either or both of them.

In the meantime, it appears you are getting some good support here. I am so dreadfully sorry that you are going through this, and your terrible problem has spurred me to question what we have going on in our transformers locally.

We are in Canada, and our neighbourhood has two types of transformers. One type, which sits on the ground, contains vegetable seed oil. The others, which are in the barrels attached to the transmission lines, are “dry” and use air as the “coolant”, and not oil of any kind as the coolant.

I feel absolutely terrible that you have experienced this hell, and I hope we can all figure out how to help you. God Bless you. Bonnie

Daisy May 3, 2014 at 5:36 pm

Bonnie–Thank you so much! I can be reached at littlehousemail(at)gmail.com. I wish our transformers were of the newer kind. Mine was 34 years old! You’re smart to know what’s in yours. I did not and I’m paying the price. However, even had I known and complained, I’m sure I would have gotten the old “oh, they almost never blow up and spew oil, they’re safe” routine. I’m getting a lot of support and I’m so grateful for everybody.

Daisy May 3, 2014 at 5:38 pm

sandi–Oh my, yes. Rare is the executive willing to take a pay cut or trim his or her pension for the sake of the bottom line. It’s the people who can least afford it who bear the burden.

Daisy May 3, 2014 at 5:41 pm

John C–I never thought about this happening. I didn’t know it was possible. Probably the main reason most people object to electricity on poles is aesthetic. They don’t necessarily consider the safety aspects. Makes you wonder what else there is that could go wrong that we haven’t thought of yet. Thanks for the moral support.

Daisy May 3, 2014 at 5:45 pm

Holly–Yes, I’d like someone experienced in this in my area to take charge of this project applying bioremediation. Although, with kids, I’d hate to have to tell them to stay out of the yard for months so it may have to be more drastic. It will depend, too, on how wide an area is affected, and without testing I don’t know yet. We’ll see.

Daisy May 3, 2014 at 5:46 pm

Burnetta–Thank you. This means a lot to me.

Bonnie North May 3, 2014 at 8:43 pm

Hi Daisy,

If you hadn’t sounded the alarm I wouldn’t have even wondered about transformers. It never occurred to me, until this terrible incident with your yard, that there may even be a problem. It was only today, after reading your posts, that my husband and I looked into it.

One the one hand, I want to express my gratitude that you have raised this awareness, but it wrenches my gut to think it has come at such an expense to you. I have such a heavy heart for you, and I admire your bravery, because I can say that I would be a basket case under the circumstances.

When things settle down, I hope you will have the strength to hold the utility company accountable to the full extent possible. I also think the media should be notified. If the spotlight is shone on how the utility company deals with this, it’s more difficult for them to weasel out of taking responsible action. I will pray for you, your family, and your land, and hope that they will do something to change the situation for everyone.

I’ll get in touch, if and when I hear from the mycoremediation guys. Bless you.

D May 3, 2014 at 10:25 pm

But…they haven’t tried to weasel out of anything at this point. Be prepared, of course, but it would be worthwhile giving them a chance to put things right once you meet and explain what you have lost and what is required to put it right.

Daisy May 4, 2014 at 4:48 am

Bonnie–I so wish someone had told me of this. Every day as I sit at my computer, the transformer is almost directly in front of me out my window. Some twenty years ago, I called the electric company concerned about radiation from transformers, and two men came out and used a radiation detector or some such and gave me their speech about how you get as much radiation from your toaster or your microwave and all that, and I felt I had no recourse but to bow my head to their wisdom. Whether it was/is true, or whether it was just a dog and pony show they trot out to everyone who calls to inquire about such things, I don’t know. I never even thought to ask: Can it explode and if so what is in there and what could happen if it did? Thanks for reaching out to the mycoremediation people, whatever the outcome. I appreciate your help and your concern very much.

Daisy May 4, 2014 at 4:55 am

D–Of course you’re right. I’m as prepared to be pleasantly surprised as I am to be, shall we say, otherwise. Ze clock she is ticking, though.

Bonnie North May 4, 2014 at 9:41 am

Hi Daisy,

I understand Tradd Cotter has reached out. I am so glad, and I hope you two can work this out. We are all anxiously awaiting what happens next. All my best thoughts go out to you.

Bonnie

Emily May 9, 2014 at 1:08 pm

I’m so sorry to hear about your garden and this whole ordeal. I also had no idea transformers had oil in them. Really, I never even thought of them. You might want to get into contact with Debra Lynn Dadd (http://debralynndadd.com/). She has been an advocate and educator for non-toxic living for decades and is very knowledgeable. She has a free online Green Living Q&A, but she also offers phone consultations for a fee.

Patricia Robinett May 19, 2014 at 1:53 pm

Oh, honey, I am SO sorry. That’s heartbreaking. We had a transformer blow up a couple of months ago, too. Fortunately, it was in an area far from gardens and people… and animals. Unfortunately a friend was standing next to it when it blew. Fortunately, he was not hurt, but he was VERY frightened. Perhaps, dear Ivory, it is time for you to have a real farm. ???

Daisy May 19, 2014 at 6:21 pm

Patricia–Thank you. The saga continues, I’m still trying to have it cleaned up. I can imagine how scared your friend was when the transformer blew. It is an epic sound.
Believe me, I’ve been through the “let’s just move” phase with this spill, but right now we’re staying put and trying to get the utility company to do the right thing.

Art June 1, 2014 at 5:18 pm

I am digging your website. Bummer about the oil spill. Just a thought–could you launder your soil using your DIY cleaners and water from rain?

Daisy June 1, 2014 at 10:40 pm

Art–Thank you, I’m glad you’re here. As for the clean up, there are cool ways to clean soil, but they’re beyond my expertise at this point. Also I’d like the perpetrator to do the job and be responsible for their own handiwork. After all, it’s their oil, they can have it back ;).

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