Cover Story: The quest for answers – and compensation – for electrical pollution on the farm
Both animal and human health is suffering from stray voltage that can cause catastrophic problems in the barn. But nailing down the precise causes and where the responsibility lies has proved a long and difficult struggle
by KATE PROCTER
Driven out of business as a result of a raft of health and behaviour problems suffered by their herd, beef producers Ross and Darlene Brindley are suing Hydro One Networks Inc. and Edmonton Power Corporation (EPCOR) for a hefty $5 million. They claim that stray voltage from EPCOR’s wind turbines not only destroyed their herd, but has also had a severe impact on their own health as well. And they are not alone.
Ross and Darlene Brindley farm with their three daughters near EPCOR’s Kingsbridge 1 Wind Power Project northeast of Goderich. A statement of claim filed Oct. 15 in the Superior Court of Justice in Goderich, said that their cattle exhibited aggressive and erratic behaviour, “including the kicking of newborn calves, prolapsed birthing, weight loss, decline in fertility, a high incidence of mastitis, calves being deformed at birth and a high incidence of stillbirths.”
Their suit goes on to say that “the plaintiffs state that the difficulties…did not exist in any similar fashion or degree prior to the onset of the wind farm becoming operational” in the spring of 2006. “Hydro One and EPCOR lines are located within
50 meters of the plaintiff’s premises and residence.”
The statement of claim says that the health of both the plaintiffs and the livestock were affected after the EPCOR turbines came on line. The plaintiffs cited “nausea, visual difficulties, unexplained loss of consciousness, skin rashes, headaches, eating and digestive difficulties, and difficulty in focus and concentration.” Chatham lawyer Mark Michael Mackew says that the Brindleys have decided not to comment further at this time. “The family is in a state of flux right now” and “Ross’s health is in question. I just hope Ross gets better,” Mackew says.
As the Ontario Energy Board releases its reaction to consultations held across the province in 2007, the issue of stray voltage may be jumping to a new level. According to its official website, Hydro One Networks is responsible for 97 per cent of Ontario’s electricity transmission system and about one-third of the province’s distribution system, bringing electricity to approximately 1.3 million homes or businesses across rural Ontario. Hydro One Networks is the largest operating subsidiary of Hydro One Inc., which is wholly owned by the Province of Ontario.
EPCOR runs the Kingsbridge 1 wind power development in northern Huron County, and generates and sells electricity and water services to Alberta, Saskatchewan, New York and Washington states. Hydro One and EPCOR did not immediately respond to Better Farming’s requests for a comment on the lawsuit.
‘Unseen but measurable’
David Colling is one of the few people who test for electrical pollution in Ontario and he says, “I’m swamped.” Colling was a dairy farmer for 27 years before joining Bio-Ag Consultants and Distributors Inc. as a dealer. He troubleshoots on farms with cow health and production problems.
In 2005, Colling, who studied electrical engineering at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in the mid-1970s, went to Wisconsin to learn how to evaluate farms for different types of electrical pollution. Colling had experience with stray voltage from his own farming experience and is now “inundated with calls” from people who are having problems in both the barn and the house. “Electrical pollution” is a term used around the world to “describe many of the phenomena surrounding unseen but measurable forms of electricity,” says Colling.
“It is caused by 21st century technology operating on 19th century electrical utility distribution lines.” The primary neutral lines are not big enough to handle the returning current and, as a result, it goes through the ground.
“When you build a new barn, you sometimes become the biggest ground on the system,” Colling adds. “Ground current and contact current” are usually referred to as “stray voltage,” which occurs when electrical currents running through the ground affect livestock in barns. Colling points a finger at many energy-efficient devices, including variable speed motors which operate on short electrical pulses instead of continuous current and cause problems because the distribution system was not designed to handle this.
“Most people just dismiss stray voltage as something that happens to dairy farmers and not to them,” says Rick Stam, a pork producer living near Kincardine. (Larger animals are generally more affected by electrical anomalies than smaller livestock.)
Stam explains that he had problems in his sow herd going back three or four years. More than 30 per cent of the sows coming out of the farrowing rooms were lame. “They were standing in the stall with their hind feet tucked in,” Stam says. They held their back legs underneath them so their feet slid towards their front legs.
Because the sows were standing in an unnatural position, their hooves on the back toes grew longer than normal. Stam suspected that the slats in the farrowing rooms were the culprit and treated all of the slats with an acid bath to remove the glossy finish that had developed through years of wear. This did not solve the problem.
His feed supplier suggested that it was a genetic problem. His genetics supplier looked at his sows in the barn and told Stam the average herd should have this problem in only six per cent of the animals. Stam finally called David Colling to test for electrical pollution in his barn.
After testing the barn, Colling suspected the problem was caused by voltage coming into the farm from the primary neutral conductor. He suggested installing a neutral isolator, a Ronk Blocker, and removing the variable speed pump from the well. “We did both of those things and we saw a huge improvement,” says Stam. “It was like night and day.”
Not only did the rate of lameness drop in the sows, but Stam also felt better. Nine months before installing the neutral isolator, Stam had started spending a lot more time in the barn. He felt exhausted all the time and experienced “tremendous aches and pains in my legs. I thought it was just from walking on cement all day.” Within two to three days of installing the isolator, “that went away,” he says.
A $100,000 problem
Variable speed motors also seemed to cause the problems at Bosdale Farm, located near Cambridge. Ed, John, Gerald and Pete Bos have been running this successful dairy farm for over 30 years.
Trouble started at the 150-cow dairy when they built a new barn three years ago. Ed Bos explains that they installed variable speed motors in the vacuum and milk pumps as well as in all the fans. About one month after the cows moved into the new barn, problems became obvious and the brothers eventually noted a 15 per cent drop in milk production, a 30 per cent drop in conception rates and a 20 per cent rise in somatic cell count.
“I am used to things getting better, not worse,” says Ed. They tested the usual list of suspects – feed, lighting, cow health – but nothing improved the situation. “Out of desperation, I thought I had to try something else,” says Ed. He called David Colling, who tested the barn for electrical pollution and pinpointed the variable speed motors.
The vacuum and milk pump motors were replaced right away and Bos reports an almost immediate improvement in production and somatic cell count. The conception rate took longer to improve and Bos suspects that some older cows with longer exposure will never fully recover. He estimates that the problem cost them $100,000 per year. It took a year and a half to remove and replace all the variable speed motors, mostly because there was no good alternative for the fans.
Part of the problem with electrical pollution is that it is difficult to find reliable help to deal with it in Ontario. Farmers interviewed for this piece, who ask for help, say they are often labelled as “poor managers” and their problems are brushed aside. Fifth generation farmers Merton and Jodilyn Albright have milked cows for over 20 years near St. Eugene, east of Ottawa. Five years ago, they expanded to milk 80 cows and built an addition to their barn. Then their “world came crashing down,” says Jodilyn.
“We thought were doing something good…we thought we were progressing,” says Jodilyn. However, as soon as the cows were moved into the new addition, it was obvious that something was very wrong. There were reproductive problems and production dropped, but the biggest impact showed up in the mortality rate. In two and a half years, over 80 cows died on the Albright farm, more than the number in the original herd.
“It is a terrifying thing when your livelihood starts dying before your eyes,” says Jodilyn. Neither testing feed nor consulting veterinarians helped. “No one wants to say ‘stray voltage’,” adds Jodilyn. “We spent a fortune and nothing was helping.”
The Albrights looked into stray voltage and installed an Agrivolt filter. Jodilyn says that, while the filter works for some people, their problems only increased. After calls to Hydro One for more than two years about their problems, the utility company finally sent investigators. While they did detect an electrical problem, they were unable to determine where it was coming from or how to fix it.
Eventually, the Albrights consulted Colling, who suggested removing the variable speed motors from the barn, some of which were just a year old. “David was a big help,” says Jodilyn.
The Albrights bought an American-made Ronk Blocker from a company in western Ontario for $3,500. Merton Albright says the blocker is on an Ontario Hydro pole “and I’m not allowed to touch anything.” The Ronk Blocker is installed at the transformer, and the utility must be involved in the installation. The device is approved for use in Canada but is not officially permitted by Hydro policy.
The Ronk Blocker “is essentially the same as a tingle voltage filter but it is installed between the primary and secondary neutral,” the fact sheet says. “Like the filter, it results in a percentage decrease only and like separation it does not address on-farm sources.”
In spite of the Ronk Blocker and a Hammond filter on a panel in the barn “We’ve still got major problems,” Albright says.
“They (Hydro One) didn’t give us any ideas how to solve it. It’s a mystery. It could be coming from a neighbour.”Jodilyn wants Hydro One and the Ontario Energy Board (OEB), the province’s regulator, to take responsibility.
“We, as farmers, are not creating this problem, but Hydro One and the OEB are not coming forward to help fix things,” she says. They are not offering any solutions or even a “go to” expert who could help. “The onus is on us to prove where it is coming from and our hands are tied until we can find someone with definite proof,” she adds.
In June of 2007, after the Ontario Legislature unanimously passed a private member’s bill, the Ground Current Pollution Act, brought forward by Maria Van Bommel, Liberal MPP for Lambton-Kent-Middlesex, the McGuinty government ordered the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) to deal with the stray voltage issue. The OEB held a series of public hearings across the province, issued a discussion paper in the spring and received comments from interested parties, says Paul Crawford, Communications and Public Affairs Advisor for the OEB.
Crawford says that farmers who have electrical problems should contact their electricity distributor as the OEB does not have anyone qualified to assist with this. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) does not have staff people who do hands-on work either. Researcher Ted Cowan is the OFA’s stray voltage expert. He has a list of qualified electricians who can help farmers. For about $180, a farmer can find out if the problem originates on his farm or elsewhere, he says.
Cowan says that 70 to 75 per cent of stray voltage occurrences on farms “are caused by farmers in their own barns” because wiring has not been done properly and has not been maintained. Probably 20 per cent of stray voltage is caused by Hydro One and other distributors, he notes.
According to its response to the OEB discussion paper, Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO) “hopes that concrete results will come out of the OEB directives.”
DFO suggests that current thresholds for acceptable levels of Neutral to Earth Voltage (NEV) and Animal Contact Current (ACC) are too high and that these should be reduced. This refers to the level of voltage travelling through the ground and through the animals. It also recommends that the province should provide farmers with more help – provincially certified experts, better information and improved mechanisms for reporting problems and finding solutions.
The OFA agrees. “The current level of exposure” measured in voltage and amperage is too high, says vice-president Don McCabe. “Some stray voltage is produced on the farm. Some comes in from the grid itself. We need to be able to determine the source. Once we determine the source, we need to be able to mitigate to a certain standard.”
Chatham-based consultant Barry Fraser has been part of a group which agitated for the ground current pollution bill. He hopes that changes to the way that electricity distributors deal with stray voltage issues will bring vindication for former local dairyman Lee Montgomery and his Doverholm Farm.
Recognized as a Master Breeder by Holstein Canada in 1971 for producing outstanding Holstein genetics, Montgomery says Ontario Hydro staff blamed his farm management while he fought for recognition of stray voltage. Montgomery says stray voltage has cost him at least $5 million.
Fraser says that Montgomery was forced off the farm in 1992 and the herd genetics were lost. Montgomery still owns the farm, but it is too small to be viable as another farming operation. BF
(With files from Don Stoneman)
Sidebar story: Energy Board closer to a stray voltage solution
On the last day of October, the Ontario Energy Board, the province’s electricity regulator, released long awaited proposals to amend how electrical distributors deal with complaints about stray voltage on farms. The proposed amendments aren’t binding and the energy board called for yet another round of comments and written proposals to be submitted by Dec. 5.
Electrical distributors are not subject to regulation now with regard to stray voltage. The board accepts that animal contact voltage in excess of one volt can potentially have an undue impact on livestock farm operations.
Former Kent County dairy producer Lee Montgomery, arguably Ontario’s most famous stray voltage fighter, says the threshold should be 0.5 volts at the property line, then reduced 0.2 volts “at the cow contact points and possibly lower.”
Currently, he says, “the utilities go by 10 volts. Ten volts can kill.” The regulators, hesays “have forgotten the human element in this.” But Montgomery says “once the cows are taken care of” then “the human element” can be addressed.
Montgomery, who charges that stray voltage destroyed his dairy herd and forced him off his farm years ago, says the proposals are overdue. “They’ve had well over a year to do all this.” Nonetheless, the draft changes appear to be headed in the right direction.
Proposed amendments called for electricity distributors serving farm customers: To set out a process for responding to stray voltage inquiries and complaints from customers and make sure it is made public; to use professionally qualified persons to investigate farm stray voltage complaints and a specified investigation procedure; and to take steps to reduce it to less than an acceptable threshold.
The board did not recommend whether that process be uniform across all distributors. Nor did it accept or reject a Hydro One Network proposal to set different standards for dairy barns than for facilities holding other types of livestock and poultry deemed to be less sensitive to stray voltage’s effects. Hydro One cites the “unnecessary” expense of treating all livestock and poultry operations the same. BF