Tunbridge incident that led to cows eating wire spurs bill putting accountability on utilities

  • Amber and Scott Hoyt found pieces of wire on their cows’ feed in Tunbridge, Vt., after a cable company completed a broadband project in their hay fields. Three cows have died and more are showing symptoms of “hardware disease.” (VtDigger - Emma Cotton) VtDigger file photograph — Emma Cotton

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    Lauren Gitlin, of Tunbridge, Vt., strains milk at Villa Villekulla Farm on Sept. 1, 2021, to later be processed into skyr, an Icelandic fermented dairy product. Because two of the French Alpine goats Gitlin milks had become sick this summer from ingesting a wood preservative left behind in their pasture by a Washington Electric Coop contractor about 15 years ago, Gitlin has had to pour their milk into the compost pile until it can be tested. "Every time I dump it, a little piece of my heart breaks," she said. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 1/15/2022 10:36:10 PM
Modified: 1/15/2022 10:35:06 PM

A pair of organic dairy farmers from Tunbridge testified before Vermont legislators Thursday morning, six months after they spoke publicly about the telecommunication wire that was left on their farm fields, sickening their cows.

Three of Scott and Amber Hoyts’ cows died after consuming stainless steel lashing wire, which was inadvertently chopped and incorporated into their feed.

ECFiber, a communication union district looking to expand broadband in the Upper Valley, hired Eustis Cable to carry out construction of the project. Eustis then hired Crammer O’Connors Fiber Genesis, which worked on utility poles on the Hoyts’ fields in the fall of 2019.

Only after the company completed that work did the Hoyts discover wire in their silage.

In response to the Hoyts’ experience, legislators in the Senate Committee on Judiciary are considering SB 166, a bill introduced by Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, and Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, that would “ensure that all construction contracts contain terms and conditions specifying standards and responsibility for worksite cleanup.”

It also establishes that a utility is ultimately liable for incidents that cause harm during the construction of its projects. A violation of the cleanup rules adopted by the bill, which the Public Utility Commission would regulate, would constitute an unfair act or practice under Vermont’s consumer protection laws.

Legislators said the bill would be increasingly important as Vermont, saturated with federal funding, carries out a large-scale broadband expansion amid staffing shortages that often require utilities to rely on contractors.

“We’re all worried that people will gain access to these lands, be hurriedly applying broadband, and perhaps will not be cleaning up the sites in the way that they should be,” said Steven Collier with the Agency of Agriculture, who testified before the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry on Wednesday.

The Hoyts said they have not been able to reclaim enough money to cover their costs following the alleged negligence of the subcontractor that worked their land. The farmers have incurred a number of related expenses and losses — replacing their organic feed, a reduction in milk production, loss of valuable herd genetics, contaminated fields and emotional distress.

An insurance policy for Crammer O’Connors Fiber Genesis lapsed while the subcontractor was working on the Hoyts’ fields and, for that reason, the insurance carrier denied the Hoyts’ initial claim, according to the Hoyts’ legal counsel.

Unable to pay for another season’s worth of feed and hoping their fields would be free of wire, the Hoyts cut hay this summer. Again, it was contaminated.

“We’re going through assuming that all of our feed’s contaminated and our fields are still contaminated,” Scott told the committee Thursday morning. “We’re just trying to survive.”

The couple filed a lawsuit against the involved telecommunication companies last fall. Meanwhile, F.X. Flinn, chair of ECFiber, told VtDigger he worked throughout the summer to pull involved parties and insurance companies together and propose a settlement that would have covered the Hoyts’ ongoing costs. ECFiber has filed a motion to dismiss the Hoyts’ suit.

The company filed the motion to dismiss because the Hoyts’ attorney’s complaint didn’t add up, Flinn said.

“The fact that we filed a dismissal has nothing to do with whether or not we want this solved,” he said. “We desperately want this solved.”

The Hoyts are not the only farmers to discover wire, apparently from utility projects, on their properties. Another Tunbridge farmer mowed over a similar bundle of wire but it didn’t cause damage, said Clark Parmalee, who works for Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets; he testified to the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry on Wednesday.

Jackie Folsom, legislative director for the Vermont Farm Bureau, told the House Judiciary Committee that the president of the Farm Bureau found wire while brush-hogging along his power lines in Cambridge — an hour and a half north of Tunbridge.

“It has been going on,” Folsom said. “It doesn’t mean it’s happening everywhere. It doesn’t mean that everyone is doing this. But it is a problem.”

Goats from Villa Villekulla Farm, also in Tunbridge, became sickened last summer by what farmer Lauren Gitlin believes to be copper naphthenate, a green, greasy substance used to preserve the base of wooden utility poles and prevent them from rotting.

A subcontractor for Washington Electric Cooperative, a customer-owned operation based in East Montpelier, Vt., likely left the mostly empty bag of preservative behind in 2005, a representative of Washington Electric told VTDigger last summer.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee debated whether the bill should apply specifically to broadband utilities or more broadly — and whether it could include a provision to compensate farmers affected by damage.

“I think everybody’s in agreement that this is an issue that needs attention,” said Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, vice chair of the committee. “The bill is admirably efficient in how it goes at the rules that are governing this. But I do think that there’s a stitch being dropped in terms of awards for people who have been injured in these situations.”

Those awards, however, would not include the Hoyts.

“The farmers that you’re going to hear from today recognize that SB 166 will not help them,” Folsom told legislators.

Flinn, the chair of ECFiber, told VTDigger on Thursday that he doesn’t object to the bill but that his organization’s contracts already contain everything the bill stipulates. In terms of the way the bill attempts to change the accountability framework, “it wouldn’t do a thing,” he said.

“When ECFiber and ValleyNet contracted with Eustis for all the work that they’ve done for us, we wrote into those contracts that they have to clean up, they have to leave it the way they found it, they have to have insurance, they have to hire professionals, on and on and on,” he said.

Folsom suggested that legislators hear from utilities that are hiring subcontractors about what already exists in the contracts.

“I have not had access to the contracts, but my issue is not what’s in it,” she told the committee. “My issue is, if this stuff is in it, it’s not being enforced.”

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