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Nephi • After a decade of legal maneuvering, testimony opened Monday in what is expected to be a month-long trial to resolve an environmental mystery: Does "stray" electricity from the massive Intermountain Power Plant near Delta sicken dairy cows?

Lawyers for six family-owned Millard County dairy farms will try to convince a 4th District jury that the plant releases the electricity into the ground as it converts its output from alternating to direct current for long-distance transmission to southern California.

"This stray current has injured my clients' dairies for years and will continue to do so," plaintiffs' lawyer Jeff Gross told the jury in Nephi. The dairy operators are claiming about $485 million in economic losses in a dispute that pits two important pillars of Utah's rural economy — agriculture and energy — against each other.

Mike Cherniske, who moved his operations from Connecticut to set up his now-bankrupt Gunn Hill Dairy, Maria Nye and other Delta dairy operators will describe how their cows' health and milk production has suffered since the 1990s.

The Intermountain Power Agency, an intergovernmental authority comprised of 23 Utah cities that operates the plant, contends stray voltage couldn't reach the farms and couldn't affect the cows even it did. Also named as defendants are Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Southern California Public Power Authority, utilities that helped build in the 1980s what was then the nation's largest coal-fired power plant and buy most of its power.

Defense experts include engineers, agronomists, veterinarians and other scientists with strong academic credentials, such as Cynthia Furse, a University of Utah electrical engineering professor and Brigham Young University physicist J. Ward Moody.

Furse, for example, will say the methodology the dairy operators used to measure current on their properties was unreliable and her own measuring could barely yield detectable readings. Other defense experts say non-electrical factors are to blame for the dairies' woes, including management decisions that may sacrifice herd health to increase production, according to defense lawyer Francis Wikstrom. He cited the challenging economic climate that has forced dairies to grow their operations.

"Since the 1980s, 90 percent of the dairy operations have gone out of business. Almost 300,000 operations are out of business. We used to have 2,500 operations in Utah, now we have less than 250," Wikstrom told the jury in Judge James Brady's courtroom. "The reason they go out of business in the Delta area has nothing to do with stray electricity."

Yet most of the dairies now suing have good production levels, often far above national averages, and temporary declines can be attributed to disruptions during the dairies' expansions in herd size, Wikstrom argued.

Experts for the plaintiffs experts will testify that they measured direct current passing through the ground and the cows themselves. They believe this current comes from the plant since most human-generated electricity moves in waves called alternating current. But the Delta plant is among just a few plants in the nation that converts its power to direct current for more efficient transmission across 450 miles of desert to California.

Cows are vulnerable to electricity in the ground because they often stand in muddy areas on four hooves, Gross argued. Their bodies complete an electrical circuit, undermining their immune systems and discouraging them from drinking water.

"In 2001, the death rate [at Cherniske's Gunn Hill Dairy] reached 15 percent, three times the national average, and that's only half the story. The cull rate for those cows was very high as well," Gross told the jury.

The plaintiffs' key expert, Kansas veterinarian Andrew Keeter, first examined the Delta dairies in 2002 to determine why Gunn Hill cows were sick. The herd's condition inexplicably improved in February 2002 at a time when one of the plant's two generators went off-line for maintenance, and then returned to poor health once the plant was fully back on-line.

While Keeter says this timing indicates electricity is the culprit, Wikstrom argued the veterinarian was predisposed to such a conclusion. Keeter was dispatched to Gunn Hill at the behest of his then-employer, Monsanto, to determine whether its product Posilac was playing a role in the dairy's problems.

Cherniske was administering the synthetic version of the hormone bovine somatotrophin to boost production, but its use had been implicated in reduced cow health, according to Wikstrom. While he didn't argue Posilac made Cherniske's cows sick, the lawyer alleged Keeter was looking for things to deflect blame from the Monsanto product.

"He was there to sell Posilac," Wikstrom argued.

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