Transformer Explosion Update

by Daisy

Back in April, during a thunderstorm, lightning apparently struck the electrical transformer in our yard.

I didn’t even know transformers contained oil.

The smell was the first clue; a strong petroleum odor. Then I saw the oil sheen on the puddles of rainwater. I didn’t know where it came from, but when the repair crew and the spill crew from the electric company responded, I was told what the smell was and also told the disturbing news that the oil might be PCBs.

The hows and whys of a potent neurotoxin being in transformers is a long story. Suffice it to say for the time being that polychlorinated biphenyls were a common type of transformer insulating oil prior to 1979, after which it was outlawed.

As you may imagine, though, outlawing a thing doesn’t make every trace of it disappear. It was allowed to remain in transformers so long as when they needed replacing the PCBs were disposed of in a safe manner and replaced with non-PCB insulating oil. Removal by attrition, in other words.

So, until it could be established that my transformer was post 1979, we waited, worried sick, until they could date our transformer.

It was post-1979. 1980 to be exact. Whew.

But wait.

Someone from the electric company crew mentioned something about an issue with contamination of post 1979 insulating oil with PCBs. We weren’t in the clear after all, but no one at the utility seemed to be concerned or to be doing anything about it. I needed someone to give me straight answers.

I went to the internet to find the names of people who worked at the utility company who seemed to have positions of influence. I wrote a heartfelt letter outlining my situation and my concerns and sent it to an engineer who seemed to be in a senior position. The next morning I saw a reply from her in my inbox. I eagerly opened it, hoping she was offering her help. This is what I read:

fyi…i swear i have the worst luck…this is exactly what happened back in 2005 that caused EPA to inspect us..i forwarded this to charlotte…will touch base w her tomorrow…

I sat there and read it over and over, trying to make sense of it. Finally it dawned on me that this was the email equivalent of a pocket dial.

It wasn’t meant for my eyes, but for someone else, someone within the company. But what did it mean?

Shall we pause for a moment of distress over her “worst luck”?  Well, in a way, I guess so.

A short search turned up a Charlotte who was the head counsel for the utility company. The Corporate Lawyer.

And what about the 2005 EPA inspection she referenced? Found this, a set of circumstances in which the utility was discovered to be violating the EPA’s regulations concerning the co-mingling of PCBs with non-PCBs in facilities unlicensed to handle PCBs, in unlabeled containers, and SELLING the tainted oil as non-PCB oil for “energy recovery” purposes rather than sending the PCB oil to licensed PCB disposal facilities to be destroyed. They were fined $1.2 million and agreed to enter into a $10 million “Supplemental Environmental Project” to fast track the removal of all PCB equipment.

I didn’t respond to the email. I didn’t know what to do with it or what to make of it. It wasn’t intended for me anyway. But it did make me worried. Very worried. Maybe a little paranoid.

Later, I got a phone call from the engineer in question. She said the company would test the oil to see if it had any traces of PCBs.

Fast forward another week, the test results come in: “no detectable PCBs present in the oil.”

Whew. That is, I guess. At this point the bloom was beginning to fade on my trust in the utility take care of this and to be honest with me. It was with good faith that I had to believe that the test was conducted properly, on my exact oil, and so forth.

I requested a sample of the oil from my transformer so I could have it tested for myself. The answer from the engineer: “(The utility company) does not provide oil samples to its customers.”

Even if I accepted their word, what was in the transformer? Although it is called by the innocuous-sounding name of “mineral oil,” what does that mean exactly?

As I found out, typically it’s naphthenic oil, a potentially carcinogenic petroleum product that nobody (well, most people, I imagine) particularly wants on his strawberry patch, blueberry bushes, and pear trees, which was the case in my yard. It was turning the leaves brown at the time and, incidentally, smelled to high heaven, like sticking your face over a bucket of creosote. It made my eyes burn and made it unpleasant to be outside.

Even if it contained no PCBs, surely the electric company would do the right thing and come out and get rid of the oil-soaked soil that smelled so awful, replace the contaminated plants, and make it right?

Well, no. They didn’t seem to want to do that because nothing was happening. I can assume that in their view, I was making a big deal out of nothing. What was a little “mineral oil” between friends?

I called the EPA, the local Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), everyone I could think of. Finally, nearly a month later, engineers from TDEC came out and took soil samples. Thank you, TDEC.

It was five weeks before I got the results: no PCBs, but EPH (extractable petroleum hydrocarbons) above allowable levels in residential soil. Namely, 14,200 parts per million. For comparison, the cut-off point is 500 ppm, 14,150 ppm above what is permitted.

The utility’s response? How do we know that our transformer oil is responsible for those levels?

I guess they think everyone and his brother will get on the clean-up-my-transformer-oil bandwagon if they agree to clean up my transformer oil. They’ll end up cleaning up transformer oil all over the county and it might cut into their annual profits. Likely? Probably not. I can’t imagine it is that common an occurrence for transformers to explode over edible gardens in suburban backyards. Still, can’t set a precedent. Give us greedy consumers an inch and we’ll take a mile.

Or is there something else people should know about?

I am told TDEC is working on making the utility take responsibility, but that this utility is known for its recalcitrance.

So that’s where things stand. Sorry for the long post.

All I wanted was my yard back.


P.S. When I finally emailed the engineer a few weeks later to ask her about the “pocket dial” email, she took a day to respond and cc’d the lawyer on a message to me that said she was under a lot of personal stress when she sent it and that her email referred to another matter unassociated with my issue. Interesting coincidence and leaves a lot of questions.

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

cindy langford July 16, 2014 at 11:11 am

Keep after them to come in remove the contaminated soil and replace it with only acceptable top soil, ( still will not be as good as what was damaged), and you might think about a law suit over this.
I work for a company in Texas that services oil rigs with contaminated soil disposal and if even a very small amount is spilled, that soil must be removed and taken to a certified waste disposal sight, then good replacement soil is replaced from where the soil was removed.
IT IS THE LAW. They must do this .
Good Luck!

gi-joe July 16, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Did she mention that her hard drive crashed, too?…and they “recycled”
immediately after trying to recover the data from it?…and that their
“backup” policy was to overwrite backup data every few hours?

Knowing what you knew, without immediately revealing that you knew
about the email, I would have threatened to go to the EPA early on, when
they wouldn’t clean up the oil…recording the conversation if legal in
your state. If she got flustered, you bring up their EPA run-in, and
when she gets more flustered, you then bring up the email. She’d
probably have given her hand away on it, instead of thinking to blame
that email on something else. BTW, did the 5-years-ago timeframe
alluded to in her email correspond with their prior EPA troubles?

Abby July 16, 2014 at 12:29 pm

Ugh. I can’t believe you’re having to deal with this. I agree with cindy that you should keep on them to replace your soil. Hugs.

gi-joe July 16, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Also, BTW, if they successfully argue that it may not be their fault, then you will be legally responsible for the very expensive task of remediating the soil in the eyes of the EPA…it could cost you a bundle.

Even people who buy properties that where contaminated prior to ownership…are held responsible for cleanup, and are liable for any judgements that prior owners had placed against them. The new owners become the primary responsible party, though the chain of responsibility is maintained as far as the EPA is concerned.

It could cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the extent of contamination and damages. I would definitely take it seriously, if nothing more than from a legal/financial issue. BTW, I’m not a lawyer, and not giving legal advice…just “street” advice for free….get what you pay for. 🙂

cindy langford July 16, 2014 at 12:45 pm

See I do not understand how they can get by with doing nothing for this long.
We had a truck spilled drilling mud coming out of o rig road a few months ago, might have been a couple 100 gallons. We went in the next day with dozers and front end loaders, removed 25 truck loads(25 tons each) of soil and replaced with fertile composted soil. Maybe that is just the difference from our Texas regulations.

Daisy July 16, 2014 at 12:50 pm

gi-joe–Ha. No, she didn’t say that, but you may be clairvoyant. I’ve mentioned this to the EPA and TDEC. We’ll see if they act on it or not. The timeframe seems to match up perfectly. It was a landmark event in the life of the company, I think her shorthand would have been immediately understood to the person for whom the email was intended.

gi-joe July 16, 2014 at 12:54 pm

What company are you dealing with, Daisy. I’m in TN also…just wondering, because my electric company is full-o-beans, too 🙂

Daisy July 16, 2014 at 12:55 pm

cindy langford–This utility seems to be a law unto themselves. There is a law pertaining to the clean-up of PCB oils, but for other transformer oils it’s less clear cut. I’m glad to have your insight into the oil spill industry.

Daisy July 16, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Abby–Got your hug. Thank you. 🙂

gi-joe July 16, 2014 at 1:12 pm

Hey Daisy, what company are you dealing with?

I’m in TN also…just wondering, because my electric company has
issues, too…I have them in my phone address book as
“Pul-a-hole Electric,” and was wondering if that rings any bells for
you…LOL. (sorry for my french)

Daisy July 16, 2014 at 4:26 pm

gi-joe–No, I think same song, different verse. If you follow the link to the story about the 2005 inspection you will see the name of the electric company.

Alice July 17, 2014 at 3:57 am

Well that sounds like the bees knees (not!). Keep pushing them to clean it up.

Michelle July 17, 2014 at 5:41 am

I would contact the news media, negative publicity can get things moving. I would also begin contacting lawyers.

Belle July 17, 2014 at 5:52 am

I would contact several environmental lawyers about your situation. They usually will give you a consultation for free and you will get a lot of info talking to different ones. There are many attorneys that handled high profile cases that you can find on google. Also if the oil traveled underground it might not still be in that same general area and could potentially reach a water supply if there is one nearby. Your town and state health dept should be involved in this as well. Good luck.

Dawna July 17, 2014 at 6:06 am

I’m so glad you posted an update. I’ve been watching for one. Keep bugging everyone including your state and local government representatives. Power companies across this nation have a “holier-then-thou” attitude since your stuck doing business with them if you choose to be on the grid. They need to take responsibility and the only way they will is if you make them uncomfortable.

Maureen July 17, 2014 at 6:54 am

Provide a fruit basket (from your yard) as a thank you gift to the utility company – the engineer you’ve been emailing with, the ‘official’ who came over initially, corporate lawyer, etc. It would be great if you could do so personally, so you could watch them decide whether / not it’s safe to eat. Better still if you had local newspaper, TDEC, EPA, lawyer, or anyone else with you as well.

Blythe Barbo July 17, 2014 at 8:12 am

In addition to the threat to your family’s health, the stress, and the need to replace your soil, there is also the matter of how this has affected your home business, which is all about organic backyard farming and being self-sufficient – which is pretty much impossible for this year, at least. Yes, you need an attorney to stand up to these thugs. They are hoping you will just go away. Don’t. They need to be held accountable. You deserve compensation. And the whole country is watching. Thank you for keeping us updated.

Debbie Elliott July 17, 2014 at 10:13 am

I have been wondering Daisy what the update on the transformer. I will be praying that the utility company will do the right thing.

BrownThumbMama July 17, 2014 at 10:16 am

Holy $hit. Stick to it, keep fighting the good fight, and we’ll back you all the way. Anything we can do on the social media front?

Sallie July 17, 2014 at 11:14 am

I think you need to call the TV stations and get some social pressure on these guys. The story could be picked up Nationally and that would be a big PR black eye for lots of folks , the least of which would be the electric company.

Daisy July 17, 2014 at 11:40 am

BTM–Exactly.Yes, I plan to get to the bottom of this as best as I can. From what I gather, it isn’t illegal to have those chemicals in transformers, but it puts illegal amounts of chemicals in the ground when it spills. Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I guess it’s a case of expediency–greater good, least of the worst, I don’t know. There are vegetable oil alternatives which, in addition to being a renewable, domestically-produced resource, have less toxic impact in the event of spills and are not the flammability hazard of mineral oil. I’m going to be writing about vegetable oil transformer oil soon. Feel free to get the word out. I want people to know this could happen to them and that there are alternatives that need to be promoted. Thank you so much for your support.

Daisy July 17, 2014 at 11:41 am

Debbie Elliott–Yes, I’ve been wanting to update but not a lot has been happening. Thank you for your prayers.

Lindsay July 17, 2014 at 12:32 pm

Keep us updated. Do you know the range of the spillage from an explosion? Just curious. We have one a few houses down. Hasn’t been a problem as of yet, but I’m going to follow your story and ask my electric co-op about transformer oils and the impact they have. Here in rural OK, a transformer explosion could destroy someone’s livelihood if it’s anything like yours. Hopefully the co-op will be more willing to listen than corporate electric.

Donna M. July 17, 2014 at 12:52 pm

Try mentioning that you’re in the processing of gaining legal representation. That might be all it takes for them to come clean up the mess. Sounds like they don’t want anyone looking too closely at their operations and procedures. A good threat sometimes goes a long way.

Daisy July 17, 2014 at 1:27 pm

Blythe Barbo–I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, they are hoping/assuming I will get tired of fighting with them and just go away. I’ll keep you informed as things move along.

Orchid July 17, 2014 at 6:24 pm

It’s definitely time to speak with your local media news departments to see if they will run a piece on these dicey transformers. Potentially a child or pet could be drenched in this stuff if a transformer blows near a school, etc.

Daisy July 17, 2014 at 7:41 pm

Orchid–Very true. Especially since there are alternatives.

Gavi July 21, 2014 at 4:23 am

Nothing gets action like a letter from an attorney!
PLEASE DONT WASTE TIME …. Hire an attorney!

farmkiti July 25, 2014 at 7:34 pm

One way to handle it might be to take your story to a local news station. That usually gets results (not always what you want, but you’ll get their attention)! Maybe that PLUS an attorney will get you the results you need. I hope so, anyway. Good luck.

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