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.
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.