The people of Knob Hill vs. Southern California Edison
A jury has ordered Southern California Edison to pay $4 million to a Redondo Beach resident exposed to stray voltage. But the neighborhood’s fight against the utility giant has just begun.First of a series
In 1962, Southern California Edison constructed a tract of all-electric houses along the 800 and 900 blocks of Knob Hill in Redondo Beach. Utilities weren’t generally in the business of home building, but Edison and other electric companies were selling something more than houses – a brightly lit, highly electrified future.
The “Live Better Electrically” campaign was launched in 1957 at the apex of the post-war boom and resulted in the construction of an estimated one million “Gold Medallion” homes. In order to earn a gold medallion, each home required an electric washer, dryer, waste disposal, refrigerator, and electric heating. The medallion itself, a small brass orb that showed a man, woman, and child holding hands surrounded by an electric field and the “Live Better Electrically” motto, was affixed to a home’s entrance and was considered, the LA Times noted, “the apex of modern, all-electric living.” Ronald Reagan, ever the optimistic salesman for a brighter future, was the face of the campaign.
What was different about the Knob Hill development was that these homes were built in the vicinity of an electrical substation. The homes, which no longer belong to SCE, are now at the center of three lawsuits which have already cost the utility company millions. Local residents have been backed by some of the most lauded civil trial lawyers in Southern California, including an attorney from the renowned legal family that won the Erin Brockovich case. The legal outcome could have statewide implications.
Unusual things began happening on Knob Hill decades ago. Light bulbs and appliances mysteriously switched on in the middle of the night. One family routinely discovered dead squirrels and possums in their backyard, and dozens of residents – unbeknownst to each other – suffered ailments that included insomnia, severe headaches, and inflammation of internal organs. Two little girls who lived 200 yards apart on either side of the Topaz Substation were afflicted with inflammation of their digestive systems. The girls became malnourished due to their inability to process food.
None of this would come to public attention until 2011, when Simona Wilson, a 32-year-old mother of three young children, suffered what one doctor described as “recurrent electrocution.”
At least as far back as the 1980s, SCE received complaints from neighborhood residents who reported getting shocked when they touched appliances and metal doorknobs, according to court documents. The company retained ownership of the five houses nearest its Topaz Substation facility, on the corner of Knob Hill and Prospect Avenue. Three of the homes were used as company housing. A SCE district manager, Michael Kellers, lived in one of the homes in the early 1990s. He received complaints from his neighbors at 904 Knob Hill, who told him they were regularly getting shocked by a sink next to their washing machine. A couple next door, the other non-Edison residents, was likewise reporting shocks. Kellers’ own Double Yellow-headed Amazon parrot picked off its feathers immediately after he moved into the home. His veterinarian suggested electrical exposure might be the cause, but the SCE manager didn’t believe it.
On Nov. 15, 1995, a family with two young children moved into 904 Knob Hill. Within two weeks, Kathleen Pantucci, pregnant with a third child, called her landlord, SCE, to report that her family was getting shocked.
An SCE real estate agent fielded the complaint.
“I just received a call yesterday morning that their children are getting shocked in the bathtub, and the mother also claims that the daughter has a cut and a bruise from a shock she received from the TV,” wrote Dana Bullock, the SCE agent, in a Nov. 28 internal company email.
Problems would persist at the property over the next two years. The Pantucci children received shocks when they stepped into a kiddie pool in the backyard, their mother later recalled. She was frequently shocked by the washing machine, particularly when it held water. The family moved out in 1997, in part because of the shocks. That same year, according to SCE records, the company considered demolishing the home as a buffer for its substation.
In 1999, SCE sold the home. Los Angeles doctor Robert Ozeran purchased it as a rental property. A few years later, after his tenants complained of shocks, the doctor contacted SCE. In 2004, the company did a full investigation of the substation. An SCE draft report titled “Topaz Substation Stray Voltage Investigation” found no faulty equipment, but also determined that the problem of stray voltage – also known as escape current – was not limited to 904 Knob Hill but existed elsewhere in the neighborhood. SCE implemented an “action plan” in an attempt to better ground the substation.
Ozeran sold the property in 2005. The family who purchased it sold it in 2007 to Simona Wilson and her husband, Ryan Fisher. The couple, who had two young boys, had no notion of the home’s history.
One Friday afternoon in August 2008, Fisher arrived home to find a notice of hazardous condition left by the Southern California Gas Company. Like most of the former all-electric Gold Medallion homes on Knob Hill, 904 had been connected to a gas line. This created a somewhat unusual condition.
The Gas Company’s “mains” – the lines that run down streets – typically are relatively low-pressure lines, 20 to 40 pounds of pressure per square inch. Off of these lines run smaller service lines that reduce the pressure down to a third of a pound by the time they reach homes.
But the Knob Hill main, in part because of the neighborhood’s all-electric history, was more akin to a supply line, running at 130 pounds pressure. And so when Gas Company technicians discovered electricity running up the service line connecting to 904 Knob Hill, they immediately shut off the gas.
As the Southern California Gas Company’s district operations manager William Perry testified in court last month, there were two main concerns: shocks and ignition. The Gas Company had long been aware of a stray voltage problem at Knob Hill, he said, but when they found voltage ranging from 30 to 90 volts on the line to the home at 904, it was the final straw.
“That’s the one that really got my attention,” Perry said.
SCE and the Gas Company brokered a deal. The gas line was turned back on, but SCE agreed to monitor voltage at 904. They ran a wire from the gas meter to the substation, 10 feet away.
“I thought, ‘Okay, that is the end of that,’” Wilson later said. “I didn’t know.”
The electric neighborhood
Mary and Constantino Contreras and their children, Cristobal and Stephanie, moved in at 806 S. Prospect Ave. in early 2005.
They’d strived all their lives for what felt like dream home. Constantino worked for a seafood company, and Mary worked as a surgical assistant. The home was just south of the Topaz Substation. The Contrerases were told it was a relatively quiet neighbor. More important were the neighborhood schools. High performing Alta Vista Elementary School was just across the street, Parras Middle School was just down Prospect Avenue, and Redondo Union High School was within a mile.
They paid close to $700,000 for the home and could not have been happier.
“We were like, okay, this is good,” Mary recalled. “This is where the kids are going to graduate. This is where I am going to get old. No worries.”
They soon noticed strange things about their new home.
The overhead light and fan above Mary and Constantino’s bed would suddenly turn on in the middle of the night. Bulbs throughout the house flickered and burnt out rapidly.
“At first we thought it was a ghost,” Mary said.
Within a year of moving in, Cris, who was 12, began suffering severe joint pain. The family thought it was a combination of growing pains and soccer – Cris was an avid player – but it grew worse.
“I couldn’t get out of bed,” he said. “It was to the point I was taking Motrin for the pain. And I couldn’t walk.”
Doctors discovered a tumor on his left femur. It was benign, and rather than operate, the tumor was monitored in hopes it would shrink.
Stephanie was 5 when they moved into the neighborhood. She was a precociously bright young girl, energetic and enthusiastic about school. For the first year, everything was fine with her. But eventually she began complaining of frequent heartburn, so much so that she stopped eating much.
“When she would eat solid food, she would complain it was stuck….She was very constipated,” Mary said. “She was not normal. She wouldn’t like to eat very much because it hurt. It made her nauseous, and she would stop eating. She’d be like, ‘I’m done.’” And then she wouldn’t eat any more.”
Doctors treated her for acid reflux but nothing seemed to work. The problem kept worsening. She was in and out of hospitals, her energy was often low, and she was missing a lot of school. Finally, in 2010, she underwent a surgery called “nissen fundoplication,” intended to address extreme cases of acid reflux. But when the surgeon opened her up, he discovered that it wasn’t acid reflux. Half of her esophagus was paralyzed, and much of her digestive tract was highly inflamed.
Constantino and especially Mary were also suffering insomnia, nausea, and headaches. They were starting to put two and two together. They’d moved out during the economic downturn in 2009 and rented their home, during which time Cris’s tumor shrank and rest of the family’s symptoms eased – all except Stephanie’s digestive problems. They moved back in August, 2011, and immediately started experiencing ill health again.
“I started saying to him, maybe it’s the area we live in,” Mary said.
In April 2010, Tom and Lori Barber moved into 908 Knob Hill. The couple had a two-year-old boy named Chance and Lori was two months pregnant. They barely took note of the substation.
“I didn’t even know it was there. We were on our way to Hawaii, and I came in and loved the house, loved the location, and Tom was like, ‘Whatever you want, babe,’” Lori recalled. “I didn’t know until we got our first documents from the Realtor, and it said, ‘Church across the street, substation on the corner….We came back and saw it, and I thought, ‘Oh, there’s people living here, it’s fine.’ That was my immediate assumption – something not safe, or hazardous, why would they have it?’”
Lori was a stay-at-home mom and Tom worked as a vice president for a company that markets kitchen tools. They decided that the home was within their means, and joyfully moved in.
“It was a slam dunk for us,” Tom Barber said. “Okay, it was a million bucks — $940,000, and it was like, ‘Oh shit, how are we going to do this?’ But we begged, borrowed, and stole from everything you could possibly do it from – you know, the 401k, IRAs. Everything we had, we pulled it together.”
Their baby girl, Adelaide, was born later that year. From the beginning, something wasn’t quite right with Adelaide. Their newborn suffered bad diarrhea.
“When you have a baby, it’s hard to explain, but they have a certain kind of poo – mustardy, seedy – when you are still breast feeding,” Lori said. “It was like that for me for a week or two, but then it was green and seedy. I was like, ‘This just isn’t right.’ It smelled like a dead animal.”
Doctors did tests and found blood and mucus in the baby’s stools. Gastrointestinal problems are not entirely uncommon in newborns, and the first attempt in addressing it was to change Lori’s diet. She cut out dairy, wheat, whey, and soy, and ate only fruits, vegetables, and some meat. But even after a few months passed, Adelaide gastrointestinal problems continued.
“There was no change,” Lori said.
She quit breast-feeding and switched to a prescription formula, again to no avail. When Adelaine began to eat solid foods, she frequently vomited. Doctors were growing concerned.
“We took her into the hospital and they would say her body was only digesting a certain amount of food,” Lori said. “It was just sitting in her, with nowhere to go….And all this was due to her whole body being inflamed, all the way from her esophagus down to her colon.”
The baby’s health problems were affecting her development. She refused to be on her stomach. Doctors surmised it was because of her abdominal pain, and it meant that she didn’t develop “tummy time” strength, such as the ability to pick up her head.
“She could never develop that upper body strength,” Lori said. “And then it took her a while to walk. We had to do physical therapy with her. She never crawled, because she never had that ‘on her stomach’ time.”
Doctors also found elevated levels of enzymes in Lori’s liver, not at all in keeping with her lifestyle. She didn’t drink alcohol, she exercised regularly, and ate well. Tom, who is diabetic, suffered the worst blood-sugar episode in his life and ended up in an emergency room. Further, he suffered insomnia, and often woke in the middle of the night to the zapping of the power lines behind their home.
“It sounded like giant bug zapper,” he said.
The house was starting to bother the Barbers. Electric sockets kept malfunctioning and bulbs burnt out quickly. They kept finding dead possums and squirrels in their backyard.
“There were so many I thought, ‘God, somebody has got to be poisoning them,’” Lori said. “I was concerned if they were being poisoned and my dog was to eat them that it would affect my dog, you know, if they were to take a bite. There was no marks on them. It was so strange.”
Tom was exhausted most of the time. He attributed it but it to the long commute to Rancho Cucamonga, made longer by how far Knob Hill is from the nearest freeway onramp. Lori was deeply disturbed by the dead animals and kept thinking back to an encounter she’d had with an SCE repairman.
She’d called an electrician to report the odd electrical occurrences in her house. The electrician referred her to SCE, and a technician came and replaced the main box outside the house. While he was working, Lori questioned the SCE technician about the buzzing of the lines, which had seemed to be intensifying.
“He made a comment that bothered me,’” Lori recalled. “‘Put it this way,’ he said. ‘I had an opportunity to buy a house down the street, three doors down. And I didn’t. Enough said.’ I went to my husband and said, ‘Something is not right.’”
In the summer of 2011, the Barbers put their house on the market. They wanted to move closer to Tom’s work. And they wanted to move away from Knob Hill.
Simona Wilson’s ordeal began in early March, 2011, in the shower of her master bedroom.
She’d just completed a remodel. The bathroom had a curious feature – a porcelain tub raised two feet off the ground that included a jerry-rigged, shower handle. She converted the tub into a stone tiled shower with three fixtures.
Wilson was a successful real estate professional who specialized in large health care property deals. She showered every morning before commuting to Long Beach. She was also an avid athlete – a runner, swimmer, and workout enthusiast. As a result, she often showered two or three times a day.
Less than a week after the remodel was completed, she began suffering from nausea and severe headaches. On a trip to a business conference on March 6 and 7 of 2011, she could barely leave her hotel room. She vomited repeatedly. When she returned home, her condition rapidly deteriorated. Wilson’s hands, legs, and feet began turning bright red and going numb. At other times, sharp pains shot through her legs, arms, and shoulders. And it grew progressively worse.
“By mid-April, I was really, really sick,” said Wilson, who’d divorced Fisher the previous year and now had a third child with her live-in boyfriend Jason Stelle. “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 Stelle were at home. 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. Maybe, Wilson suggested, she had a pinched nerve.
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. She frequently touched the showerhead in order to keep the spray from her hair. In so doing, because of the current running through the metal fixture, she had unknowingly closed a circuit – through her own body.
The next day, Simone’s father Mike Wilson, a contractor who’d done the bathroom remodel for Simona, came to the house with his electrician Brett Lacy. Their voltmeter registered three volts on the shower head, and 12 volts running along the gas line outside. The voltage was still present, even after they turned off the main breaker, cutting power to the house.
“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.
Mike Wilson realized that the tub had been elevated for a reason.
“It looked like a real bad design idea,” he said. “I had no idea it was functional.”
Wilson called SCE and reported an emergency. Edison sent out a crew to investigate, but not to Wilson’s house house. The crew didn’t even stop to talk to Wilson, but instead went to the substation next door.
“That,” Wilson said, “was our first clue that something was seriously wrong.”
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. So she called again the next morning and demanded that someone visit her home.
“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 Gas Company.
“We saw a lot of meetings of minds, people just standing around talking,” Stelle said.
Edison officials finally met with the couple on April 27 and again on May 6 and disclosed the home’s unusual history. What happened at these meetings is a matter of dispute. SCE claims it offered to mitigate the stray voltage by installing plastic isolators on the metal piping. Wilson contends no such offer was made. Instead, she said, one of the SCE representatives, Matt Norwalk, suggested she shower during off-peak hours and explained that studies show dairy cattle are more conductive of electricity than human beings and are regularly exposed to stray voltage – in essence, that the levels of current she was coming into contact shouldn’t be harmful. Wilson was flabbergasted.
“Are you comparing me to livestock?” she asked.
Something not in dispute is that Wilson wanted out of the neighborhood. She asked SCE to buy back her house; the company refused. She contacted a lawyer.
On May 20, Wilson received a letter from Michael Kellers, the former SCE district manager who’d once lived three doors down. SCE’s claims department had contacted Kellers to enlist his support in the likely legal case. In his letter, Kellers said he’d already faced retribution from SCE for his role as a whistleblower within the company. A declaration he later filed indicated he’d pressed the company regarding safety and environmental issues, including unsafe practices he claimed were taking place in Manhattan Beach.
“For many years, I was a manager for SCE,” Kellers wrote. “I have detailed knowledge and background that I believe will not only support your position, but also enable you to leverage the facts heavily in your favor.”
On May 23, Wilson visited Redondo Beach neurologist, Dr. George Rederich. He was referred to her by her physician. Rederich noted that her symptoms were indicative of nerve damage. In a deposition, he later said that the fact that both her feet and her right hand appeared to be most impacted – each of the three limbs frequently turned bright red –suggested that she’d been subjected to “recurrent electrocution.”
“There is nothing else that would have explained her original pattern of the right hand and both feet,” Rederich said.
Kellers would also later be deposed regarding the matter. He said he knew the company had been aware of the stray voltage problem since the 1980s and he was offended when he realized what the SCE claims department was trying to do to Wilson.
“This has been going on for quite some time, with this stray voltage, and I have detailed knowledge – that not only was I aware of it, but other managers at Edison were aware of it,” Kellers said. “….When I saw what [the SCE claims department representatives] were trying to get me to say, I was completely embarrassed that Edison would treat a person that way, knowing that this went back that far.”
Wilson, in hopes of gaining the attention of the California Public Utilities Commission, contacted the Easy Reader that September. When the resultant news story appeared, she was contacted by the CPUC, which up until that point had not responded to her requests for an investigation. The story also garnered widespread media attention regionally, and led to several television reports.
Suddenly, residents up and down the 800 and 900 blocks of Knob Hill had a dawning realization: their problems were not isolated.
The Barbers pulled their home off the market.
“Everybody kind of went, ‘Ah ha,’” Lori Barber said. “Tom and I – we didn’t know there was more of a problem until we started reading and putting two and two together. We couldn’t sell the home at that point. We couldn’t put some other family through what we’ve been through.”
Eventually, three separate civil lawsuits were filed. In addition to Wilson’s suit, the Contreras and Barber families joined together in a case that is scheduled to go trial next September. A third group consisting of 25 families has recently joined in a third suit. The stakes are high for everyone involved, but perhaps none more than the Wilson, Contreras, and Barber families – all who have moved out of their homes and have either been foreclosed upon or who are staving off foreclosure as the issues play out in the court of law.
All totaled, more than 70 residents of Knob Hill chose to fight Southern California Edison for what all claim has been decades of negligence and intentional infliction of harm.
In a statement, SCE said it was unable to speak to the issues being raised regarding Knob Hill: “Because of pending litigation, SCE has no further comment regarding the Topaz substation at this time.”
Wilson’s was the first case to go to trial. In late February, a week before the trial was scheduled to start, she discovered that she would be fighting a decidedly uphill fight. Neither Kellers, the SCE whistleblower, nor her doctor would be testifying on her behalf.
Wilson would fight Edison alone.
Next: Simona Wilson v. Southern California Edison.