Dairy farmers win $1.1 million against utility
The Baumgardners of Skagit Valley had been mystified for years about what was making their cows sick and milk production drop. They traced it to stray voltage infiltrating their barn, and they want more farmers made aware of the issue.
Seattle Times staff reporter
David Baumgardner remembers when the problems started in 1996, almost as soon as his family moved into a dairy northeast of Mount Vernon.
The cows' milk production slumped. Then more started getting sick or dying. By 2002, Baumgardner was losing sleep and money, futilely searching to find out why his dairy seemed to be cursed.
Then one of his sons returned from the milking barn in early November 2002, complaining about a tingling sensation when he touched something.
After nearly a month of patrolling the farm with a voltage meter, Baumgardner hit upon what he thinks was the problem: stray voltage from a Puget Sound Energy power line was electrifying parts of his barn, delivering tiny shocks to the electricity-sensitive cows.
"The amount of damage that was done to our herd was enormous," said the 48-year-old Baumgardner.
He blames the electrical utility for not alerting dairy farmers to the potential problem, or checking earlier to see if it was happening to customers such as him.
Friday, a Skagit County Superior Court jury sided with David Baumgardner and his wife, Lucinda, awarding them a $1.1 million verdict against Puget Sound Energy.
The ruling is unusual but not unheard of. Dairy farmers across the country have won verdicts against electric utilities over cases of "stray voltage." Among the largest is a $17.5 million judgment in 2004 for an Idaho dairyman against Idaho Power. After an appeal, the two sides in that case reached a settlement.
Stray voltage is electricity that leaks out of an electrical system through places like overloaded power lines, or faulty or aging electrical circuits. It can pass through an animal if it comes in contact with objects carrying the electricity, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.
Now Baumgardner said he hopes the Skagit County ruling will draw attention to the issue here, and spare other dairy farmers the same problems.
"There are very likely other farmers in this state that are going through exactly the same things that we did, right now," he said. "And that's something that's very frustrating to me."
Martha Monfried, a Puget Sound Energy spokeswoman, disputed that the company was to blame, and said an appeal is likely.
"Puget Sound Energy acted appropriately. We made a strong case that we felt stray voltage was not an issue here," said Monfried. "In all likelihood we will appeal because we had such a strong case."
She said the company responds to concerns from customers and is continuously monitoring its system.
Stray voltage has been an occasional problem in the past, and awareness sometimes jumps after a verdict like the one in Skagit County, said Jay Gordon, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation, which represents dairy farmers statewide.
In the late 1990s, a dairy farmer won a $1 million verdict against the Lewis County Public Utility District in southwestern Washington. The case was later settled after an appeal.
Cows are sensitive to electricity, and tiny doses can stress the animals, causing a drop in milk production and increased illness, said Gordon. The problem can be elusive if the voltage spikes intermittently, he said.
In Skagit County, David Baumgardner said he started looking for answers in 1996. He brought in animal nutritionists and veterinarians. He scrutinized the layout of the milking barn. He even had someone check for stray voltage several times, thinking it might be coming from wiring on the farm. It never revealed anything, he said.
Baumgardner said he now thinks the problem was masked earlier by daily fluctuations in the stray voltage coming from the PSE power line.
The farmer said he called PSE to look for the problem in 2002, and that the company, after monitoring the farm, suggested it was coming from his own equipment.
Baumgardner said he began meticulously measuring voltage levels on his farm, and found voltage spikes at certain times of day. Those spikes occurred even when all the power was shut off at the farm, leading him to the power lines themselves, he said.
After a piece of equipment was installed at the farm that shut off the stray voltage, Baumgardner said, problems began to ease.
Milk production has risen, and the size of his herd is increasing. But the dairyman said he still wonders if he will ever be able to fully recover.
"It really was lost time, and there's really no way to get that back, that's for sure," he said.
Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.