Mark McDermott

Mystery at Topaz substation

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A Redondo Beach family is forced out of their home due to stray voltage emanating from a neighboring electrical facility

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Simona Wilson and her boys, Brendan, 7, Nicholas, 4, and Drew, 1. The family moved out of their home last month after Simona Wilson suffered from low voltage electrocution. Photo by Alexandra Mandekic/AlexandraMandekic.com

Simona Wilson could not have been much happier in her south Redondo Beach home until the day earlier this year when a new shower was installed in her master bathroom.

Her life since has included an agonized series of trips to emergency rooms and doctors as well as the recent relocation of her entire family away from their home. Wilson would only later discover that she was suffering from what is sometimes described in medical literature as low voltage electrocution.

Wilson, a 32-year-old mother of three boys all under the age of six, had purchased her home in 2007. She bought the four-bedroom home located at 904 Knob Hill largely because it was near where she’d grown up and kitty-corner from the high-achieving Alta Vista Elementary School.

At the time, she didn’t pay much mind to the Southern California Edison substation located just next door, at the southeastern corner of Prospect Avenue and Knob Hill. The substation, shrouded in bushes, was mostly quiet and formed a sort of buffer between Wilson’s home and Prospect Ave.

Her ordeal began in early March.

The bathroom originally had a porcelain tub, which, curiously enough, was raised approximately two feet off the floor. It had a jerry-rigged shower attached to its faucet that, though imperfect, had sufficed until last January, when the plumbing stopped working. Plumbers who looked at the system said it was beyond repair – pipes were jammed into the little space in such an odd way that the whole thing needed to be replaced.

Wilson’s father, Mike Wilson, is a Redondo Beach contractor. He began replacing the tub with a tile-floored shower in late January, and completed the job on March 1.

Less than a week later, Wilson began feeling ill. She suffered nausea and severe headaches. On a trip to a business conference on March 6 and 7, she could barely leave her hotel room. She vomited repeatedly and felt fatigued.

When she returned home, her condition rapidly deteriorated. Wilson’s hands, legs, and feet began going numb. At other times, raging pains shot through her legs, arms, and shoulders. And it all kept getting progressively worse.

“By mid-April, I was really, really sick,” Wilson said. “I couldn’t feel anything in my hands and feet. I just felt fatigued all the time, and nauseous, and my body was off. I couldn’t function. I couldn’t hold my children…I couldn’t feel the gas pedal when I drove. Very bizarre things.”

She scheduled an appointment with her doctor for April 20. The night before, she and her boyfriend – Jason Stelle, who lives with her – returned home late. Around 10 p.m., he jumped in the shower. They were talking, so she joined him in the bathroom, and she began explaining something she often felt in the shower – a tingling sensation in her arms. She thought it had to do with whatever was wrong with her whole body.

Stelle put his hands on the metal showerhead and suddenly felt the same thing: a tingling sensation coursing through his arms. “This isn’t just you,” he told her. “I’m feeling it too.”

Stelle, an engineer, immediately realized what was happening: the showerhead was electrically charged. He had never felt it before because he rarely touched the showerhead. Wilson, however, usually showered three times a day: once in the morning, before work, when she would also wash her hair; once after arriving home in the early evening, after going to the gym; and again before bed. The latter two times she would hold the showerhead, adjusting it in order to direct its water flow away from her head, since she was not washing her hair.

“She is an adjuster,” Stelle said. “I am just a showerer.”

Wilson, a health care real estate professional, felt somewhat baffled she hadn’t put two and two together earlier. Other strange things suddenly made sense – for example, Wilson had been giving off shocks when she touched Stelle, or her children. What had apparently been occurring was that when she held the showerhead, she in effect closed a circuit. An electrical current flowed into her. Electricity is slow to dissipate; thus, her body had been carrying a charge.

“Like, ‘Duh, what is wrong with me?’ I personally never in a million years would have expected there to be electricity in my showerhead. You don’t think electricity and showers go together. I am a smart person, but I didn’t put those two things together. I had assumed it had to be something wrong with me.”

She called her father, who arrived the next morning with an electrician he frequently worked with, Brett Lacy of Web Electric in Redondo Beach. Lacy used a voltmeter and confirmed that the shower head was carrying a charge of about three volts. Perhaps even more disturbing, he checked the gas line outside the house and found an 12 volt charge.

Lacy turned off the home’s main breaker, and the voltage readings remained the same. He realized then the problem had nothing to do with the house itself. The earth under and around the home was carrying a charge.

“I have been an electrician since 1986, and I have never seen anything like that, with voltage traveling through the earth and around the house,” Lacy said in an interview this week. “I talked to a lot of other electricians about it, and nobody had seen anything like it.”

Wilson called Southern California Edison that morning and reported an emergency. She told S.C.E. what had been happening. That night Edison sent out a crew to investigate, but not the house. The crew didn’t even stop to talk to Wilson but instead went to the substation next door, formally known as the Topaz substation.

“That,” Wilson said, “was our first clue that something was seriously wrong.”

Hidden history

Wilson called again to ask for a visit to her home. But the following day, the same thing happened. Edison technicians visited the substation, but not Wilson’s home. She called again, to no avail. So she called again the next morning and demanded that someone visit her home.

“So it took two days and four phone calls to get them to show up at our house, but they were at the substation hours and hours those two days,” she said.

Finally on April 22 two technicians from Edison made separate visits. According to Wilson, they measured voltage at three points – three to five volts at the showerhead, nine volts at the gas line, and four volts at home’s earth ground.

Over the next week there was a buzz of activity around Wilson’s home. She and Stelle woke one morning to find 20 technicians in her front yard, both from Edison and the Southern California Gas Company.

“We saw a lot of meetings of minds, people just standing around talking,” Stelle said.

Finally, Edison officials met with the couple on April 27 and disclosed the home’s unusual history. The Topaz substation had what is known as a stray or escape voltage problem for at least two decades. The substation apparently was not sufficiently grounded – despite an intricate underground system of the sort that is generally able to contain electricity, the sandy soil underneath the facility was allowing an escape current – meaning electricity leaked onto Wilson’s property. 

“So what we thought originally was just a shower situation we started to learn, when all the field technicians came out here, was actually a property-wide problem,” Stelle said. “The entire ground of this house is charged with electricity.”

The pieces were starting to come together. Suddenly, a strange encounter Wilson had with the Gas Company in 2008 made more sense. In August of that year, Gas Company technicians came to do a routine replacement of the home’s gas meter. After they completed the job, however, they refused to turn the gas back on – they had found an electrical charge running up the gas line and deemed it unsafe.

Wilson, who was going through a divorce at the time, hadn’t really understood the significance of what the technicians had said. It was more of an annoyance than a threat – the gas was turned off on August 22, a Friday, and she was unable to bathe her kids after work that night. The next day, Edison and the Gas Company reached an agreement, running a wire from the gas meter to the substation property that would allow Edison to monitor the voltage. The gas was turned back on.

“I thought, ‘Okay, that is the end of that,’” Wilson said. “I didn’t know.”

According to at least three different Edison officials who Wilson said forthrightly shared information about the property, her home had further complications in its history. The house at 904 Knob Hill and the four homes due east had all previously been owned by Edison. They were constructed in the 1960s as “Gold Medallion” homes – featuring only electricity, no gas power – and used to house Edison employees. Edison had purchased the properties in order to site its substation and transmission lines without complications; the properties were held by Edison until the late 1990s, when all five homes were sold.

One official told Wilson that when all the homes were eventually connected to gas lines, there had been a complications with 904 Knob Hill and some other homes along the 700 and 900 blocks of the street – for technical reasons, they were not able to connect to the gas line in the usual manner for residential homes, which generally receive less than 20 pounds of gas pressure. Wilson’s home instead is connected directly to the main line and receives roughly 135 to 200 pounds of gas pressure, according to what she said Edison officials told her.

“They said that in a few cases of the homes that had high pressure gas lines they were able to create these little residential ‘incubators’ on the 700 block [to convert the gas lines to low pressure], but my particular house, because the interplay with electricity, the stray voltage – the Gas Company has never been able to kind of make mine a more residential grade,” she said. “Edison was very informative at this point.”

Simona’s father, Mike Wilson, said the two companies seemed to be pointing at each other.

“Edison was kind if kicking it into the Gas Company’s yard, and the Gas Company was kicking it back,” he said. “And neither of them was doing anything.”

Ongoing measurements found 26 different points within the house charged with electricity, including most of its appliances and plumbing fixtures.

Wilson said she was repeatedly assured the company would work to resolve the problems. But both she and Stelle were growing increasingly skeptical.

“Their term was, ‘It’s a technical issue,’” Stelle said. “They said, ‘We are coming up with a working theory.’ And we were like, ‘You have been working on it for 20 years!’”

Wilson said that the officials told Edison had received complaints regarding electricity in the home from previous owners, particularly regarding the bathroom and the laundry room, both which are nearest the substation. She said was told that at least some of the former residents simply didn’t use the master bathroom; given the odd nature of the porcelain bathtub she replaced – which was non-conductive of electricity, and elevated from the ground — Wilson wondered if it was installed at Edison’s urging.

According to Wilson, at one point an Edison official asked her if purchasing the home – which is worth roughly $1 million – would be an acceptable solution.

“I said ‘Yes’ immediately,” she said. “But later he came back and said he didn’t have the authority to make million dollar decisions.”

Things turned downright adversarial on May 6. According to Wilson, the field technicians she’d been dealing with showed up with a representative from the Edison claims department. They again acknowledged the stray voltage issue, but told Wilson that any electrical exposure within the house was still within legal standards, she said. Wilson said they tried to explain that the standards were developed with cows in mind – stray voltage has often been an issue on farms – and that cows are much more vulnerable to exposure than humans.

One of the men allegedly told her that a cow can withstand 500 ohms of current whereas a human can take 1,000 ohms. Wilson was flabbergasted.

“Are you comparing me to livestock?” she asked. “When is the last time you ate a hamburger? I am not a cow. Why are you comparing me to something we eat every day?”

According to Wilson, the Edison officials also suggested that she needed to tailor her lifestyle to her environment – including the installation of non-conducive flooring similar to what was used next door at the substation, where rock salt is put on the ground — and plan showers around non-peak electrical times to reduce exposure.

“I was baffled at their behavior,” Wilson said. “They are basically telling me to fashion my house after a substation.”

She finally grew angry. According to Wilson, they had a heated exchange.

“Do you have children?” she asked one of the men, one of the technicians who’d previously seemed sympathetic.

“I have two,” he responded.

“Would you live here?” she asked.

He had no response.

“He was speechless,” Wilson said.

 

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Simona Wilson in the newly installed shower, which became electrified from stray voltage and caused her to suffer low voltage electruction. Photo by Alexandra Mandekic

The upshot

On May 18, technicians arrived unannounced at 7 a.m. and asked to see the bathroom. It had rained the previous night and they wanted to measure voltage. They seemed genuinely concerned.

“It was pretty telling they would show up and be worried about our safety,” Wilson said. “After telling us it was a technical problem.”

Her health continued to deteriorate. She had to make two trips to a hospital emergency room. The first time, her legs grew so numb that she could not walk. Stelle had to carry her into the hospital.

“He puts me on the ground and I fall face first,” she recalled. “I couldn’t feel my legs underneath me. There I was on the floor of the emergency room. I couldn’t open my eyes. My kids were there…I was in so much pain, I thought I was dying.”

She had a distended stomach and fluid in her abdominal cavity, but doctors couldn’t determine exactly what was causing it. Finally, a neurologist determined at least part of what had happened to Wilson – she was suffering from severed and burned nerve endings. The doctor said she had suffered from electric shock, or low voltage electrocution.

The claims department was communicating more sporadically, urging Wilson to be patient as they regrouped and attempted mitigation measures. Finally, she lost patience and contacted a lawyer.

Two things happened in late August that finally convinced Wilson and her family to leave their home. First, Wilson hired a house biologist named Oram Miller to come and inspect the house and determine if it was safe to live there. When Miller arrived, Stelle went outside to greet him. Miller already had his instruments out to measure electric and electromagnetic fields.

“He was like, ‘Get out now,’” Stelle said. “‘I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.’ He takes out some measuring device, looks up, and looks around. ‘Your family should not be living here.’”

Miller issued a report on Sept. 4 in which he formally recommended the family move. He was careful to note that Edison was within its legal standards but that given Wilson’s symptoms and the high levels of ongoing exposure at the house, the family needed to relocate.

On Aug. 31, Stelle was at home when a small group of technicians from the Gas Company arrived unannounced, including a field supervisor named Leo Hernandez. They conducted voltage tests on the gas line and expressed safety concerns. According to Stelle, he asked if there was a risk of explosion should the gas line be dislodged. They indicated there was such a danger.

On Sept. 16, the family moved out. On the same day, attorney Larry Grassini filed suit against Southern California Edison. He is arguing that Edison was recklessly negligent when it sold 904 Knob Hill to the public without full disclosure of the stray voltage problems. He said that legal standards for exposure in this case are beside the point.

“They have known for 20 years that there was stray voltage,” Grassini said. “They sold those homes to the public with no warning of the potential harm. They are legally, and frankly, they are morally responsible. Simona has three little kids who are being exposed to all of this. It’s dreadful.”

“Just because they say, I think testing goats or cows or something, didn’t cause harm, it obviously caused her harm,” he added. “They breached their duty they have to the public when they allowed those homes to be sold to individuals who could be harmed by it.”

Edison officials neither confirmed nor denied any of the allegations made by Wilson. Spokesperson Scott Gobel said matters under litigation could not be publically addressed.

“Currently, there is an attorney involved, so I am not able to really speak about this,” he said. “We have been working with [Wilson], and we are still open to working with her to resolve this issue.”

Councilman Steve Aspel, in whose district Wilson’s home is located, called for Edison to conduct an investigation of the safety of the entire block.

“Based on what we have found so far, it’s just not right,” Aspel said. “Edison has to investigate that whole block. It looks like corporate irresponsibility. They have got to make somebody whole.”

A former Edison management employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed the general outlines of the property’s history the Wilson had been told by technicians. He said that stray voltage has been an issue on the 900 block of Knob Hill for more than two decades. He said that previous problems were confined more to “annoyances” – such as people getting shocked by their appliances – but that the sale of the homes generated internal debate within the company.

“We never should have sold those homes,” he said. “It was a wise thing to acquire those properties to begin with.”

The man said he had no knowledge of health dangers at the properties, although former residents sometimes complained. In once instance, a pet bird, he said, would not stop picking at itself, removing all its feathers shortly after moving into a house on the block.

He argued that the cost of purchasing the house represented no more than “a duck’s fart” to Edison and was simply the right thing to do.

“I genuinely feel for the family,” the former Edison employee said. “I just wish Edison would do the right thing. I am embarrassed, being an Edison man, that they are not doing the right thing. Let’s settle this thing.”

Wilson, meanwhile, is taking 12 pills a day to address her nerve pain and has recently been further diagnosed with a rare condition in her uterus that may require a hysterectomy. For the first time in her life, she has missed payments – she cannot afford to make the $5,000 mortgage payments while still providing housing for her family elsewhere in Redondo Beach. In the course of a ten minute interview this week, she received three calls from the two different banks – Chase and Bank of America — who handled her loans, seeking payment.

“I don’t know what to do,” Wilson said. “I am up against a giant.”

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