WILLARD — The severe shock that critically injured a tow truck operator in 2014 ignited a controversy that continues today: Are Willard Bay State Park visitors at risk from electricity arcing from overhead high-voltage power transmission lines?
Cooper Bacon of West Haven is disabled because of electric shock injuries he suffered July 7, 2014, at the park’s north gate. Medical reports said he suffered brain damage and other permanent injuries as he was preparing to tow an RV that had broken down.
Shocks still occur at the park, although apparently none as severe as Bacon’s, said the man’s Ogden attorney, Emily Swenson.
“That power line runs right over the entrance to the north marina,” Swenson said. “We know of at least five other people who have written in with similar experiences.”
On Bacon’s behalf, Swenson filed suit against Rocky Mountain Power and its parent company, PacifiCorp, accusing the utility of failing to protect people from electrostatic discharges from the 345-kilovolt line.
“The danger is still out there for everybody,” Swenson said.
Rocky Mountain Power has denied allegations in the lawsuit, which remains under litigation in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City.
Company spokeswoman Tiffany Erickson said the utility investigated the area where Bacon was hurt.
“We haven’t been able to recreate the conditions,” she said.
State Parks Division spokesman Eugene Swalberg said, “There hasn’t been any visitor that has suffered any electrical injuries from improvements owned by or associated with the state parks.”
The parks agency and the Utah Department of Transportation originally were defendants in the suit, but they were dropped from the case later after the state argued they were protected by governmental immunity.
“We just want to make sure it is understood that Rocky Mountain Power has a legal easement or corridor that runs through” a portion of the park, Swalberg said. “They have a legal right to be there.”
Bacon, 26, said he has received Facebook messages from people reporting similar, but less injurious, shocks at the park.
“They (Rocky Mountain) haven’t done anything up there,” Bacon said. “People have been shocked putting the flag on the flagpole. Everything up there has a ground on it. If you don’t have a problem, why would you have that?”
Bacon faces a lifetime of disability. He can no longer work as a tow operator. He can’t even drive.
“I want the problem fixed so no one else gets hurt,” he said.
A forensic engineer engaged by Bacon’s attorneys filed an expert witness report that reconstructed the incident and evaluated indications of an electrostatic phenomenon.
Before Bacon arrived, the owner of the disabled RV said he was shocked. He was crawling under the vehicle, intending to bleed the fuel valve, when he was shocked, according to the report by engineer John A. Palmer.
Electricity arced through the man’s glove, so he got to his feet and disconnected the RV’s battery and generator. But he continued to be shocked and “concluded that the power lines must be causing the shocks ... he could hear the humming of the lines.”
Bacon then responded to the tow request.
In his analysis, Palmer discounted the possibility that the shocks were caused by either the RV battery or generator or the medium- and low-voltage power distribution system within the park.
Palmer said the vertical clearance between the RV and the overhead lines was sufficient enough that “no electrical energy could be conducted directly from the lines to the RV.”
“However,” he added, “a phenomenon referred to as electrostatic induction is capable of driving electrical energy through remote objects without electrical contact.”
He said the electrical field likely produced 6,200 to 7,200 volts on the body of the RV.
“Such a voltage is sufficient to create an electrical arc,” Palmer’s report said. “Electrostatic induction due to the position of the RV relative to the line induced significant voltage and currents during Mr. Bacon’s interactions with the vehicle.”
In a court deposition, Willard Bay park employee Kevin Valcarce said there were “instances of customers complaining about getting shocked” by the credit card reader at the gate.
“I know when we were putting in the building, there were static shocks at the entrance station,” Valcarce testified, according to the deposition transcript. “And there’s lots of times you’re under the light pole, we went to lift it, there were static shocks.”
Swenson said it could cost millions of dollars for Rocky Mountain to move its transmission lines, “so they’re scuffing off these concerns, saying it’s no big deal, it’s not a problem.”
“My fear is, this could be fatal if it happens to a kid next time,” Swenson said. “If enough people come forward, maybe they will make changes.”