TUNBRIDGE — The owners of a Tunbridge dairy farm whose cows died after ingesting leftover wire from a telecom project say their insurance claim has been denied, spurring them to consider legal action against the entities that oversaw work at their property.
Meanwhile, a dozen Tunbridge officials have signed a letter raising concerns about Hoyt Hill Farmstead’s “ability to survive” and calling on the ECFiber communications district to “make the Hoyts ‘whole’ in a timely manner.”
And the new leader of the Vermont Community Broadband Board is calling for better training for subcontractors as the state pushes broadband expansion efforts.
In a response to the Tunbridge officials last week, ECFiber said it is “pursuing every responsible avenue available to us to resolve this matter quickly.”
“As you can imagine, this matter involves many parties, insurance carriers and lawyers, and the facts and issues we are grappling with are complex, and working through this process takes significant focus,” ECFiber board chair F. X. Flinn wrote in the letter dated Aug. 13.
Last fall, Amber and Scott Hoyt, owners of the Hoyt Hill Farmstead in Tunbridge, found in their feed small pieces of wire, which seems to have been left in spools around their hay fields where a contractor was stringing fiber.
When the farmers’ chopper mowed the field to harvest the hay, it apparently cut the wire into pieces and mixed it into the feed, which was consumed by as many as 70 cows. Three cows have died.
Although the Hoyts use devices equipped with magnets to detect bits of metal when cutting hay, the lashing wire used in telecom projects is a non-magnetic type of stainless steel, allowing it to pass through undetected.
The farmers had hoped an insurance claim would reimburse them for damages, including the three deceased cows and 500 tons of replaced feed. But they told VTDigger they recently learned their claim was denied because an insurance policy for a subcontractor who worked on a telecom project in the area had expired.
The Hoyts believe the wire was related to a broadband expansion project overseen by ECFiber, also known as the East Central Vermont Telecommunications District. The communications union district is working to expand broadband in the Upper Valley.
The district contracted with Brookfield-based Eustis Cable, which hired Crammer O’Connor’s Fiber Genesis LLC to install the new lines on the Hoyts’ property in fall 2019. The line is operated by ValleyNet.
Crammer O’Connor’s has since gone out of business. VTDigger has been unable to locate a representative for the former company.
According to a paralegal working on behalf of the Hoyts, Crammer O’Connor’s insurance carrier denied the Hoyts’ claim because its insurance lapsed amid the company’s work on their fields.
“The policy lapsed on Nov. 7  for non-payment and never continued after that,” said Donna McCann, of the law firm Cullenberg & Tensen.
The subcontractor visited the Hoyt property that year on Oct. 20 and 31, and on Nov. 6, 7 and 12, McCann said.
Scott Hoyt said the family expects to file suit against all involved parties sometime this fall.
In an interview on Wednesday, Flinn said the district “certainly had policies and standards in place that, on paper, meant this should never have happened,” he said.
“Our intent is to do a study of how this all happened so that we can learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
In addition to calling for compensation for the Hoyts, the July 29 letter signed by the 12 Tunbridge officials — including members of the selectboard and planning commission, as well as the town clerk and town treasurer — asked ECFiber to recognize that the issue is “ongoing,” and stated concern about additional farms that may be unknowingly affected.
“We also request this come as an opportunity to redesign best practices of the broadband expansion throughout the state and beyond,” the letter reads.
Officials said they understand the need for broadband expansion, but were concerned about the future of dairy in the town.
“We do not want to lose another dairy farm with a wonderful, young, hardworking family for a disastrous reason like wire (now ‘needles’) in their cows and feed,” the letter said. “And we certainly do not want to see young dairy farmers like the Hoyts suffer from somebody else’s mistake.”
Vermont recently received $250 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act that will be directed toward broadband expansion in the state, and additional funding is likely to come in from the federal infrastructure law.
Christine Hallquist, who leads the new Vermont Community Broadband Board, said she learned of the Hoyts’ story on July 12, the same day that Gov. Phil Scott appointed her to the position. She called it a “terrible situation, just horrible.”
Hallquist said there is a significant labor shortage in Vermont’s broadband industry, along with a materials shortage, which may be prompting companies to search for subcontractors.
“In the short time I've been here, I’ve already had meetings with the Department of Labor to talk about how we're going to train folks and grow our own labor pool within the state of Vermont,” she said. “And part of that training has to address safety and housekeeping.”
“I believe 95% of people get up every day and want to do a good job,” she said. “But, you know, without leadership, things can fall into chaos.”
Contractors, she said, can come and go, and businesses aren’t as familiar with their practices as they are with their own employees.
“It's hard to tell the level of training they've had, the level of experience,” she said. “So yes, I’d call that a basic failure of contract management.”
Eustis Cable and ECFiber, she said, may be held responsible for the fact that Crammer O’Connor Fiber Genesis LLC did not have insurance for part of the time the company was working on the Hoyts’ land. She referred to her time working in the electric utility business, during which a person died.
“When those things happen, I expect the families to go right up the chain,” Hallquist said. “It's every person in the chain’s responsibility once something like that happens.”
Andrew Bauer, director of operations for Eustis Cable, said most industries in the state are currently experiencing labor shortages, including Eustis.
“We're always evaluating how we vet labor, be it contract or in-house,” he said. “We're always learning. Certainly, I've never heard of any incidents like this in my 30-some-odd years of doing this work.”
In his response letter, Flinn, the chair of ECFiber, said the district learned of the Hoyts’ situation in May, and officials “immediately took action.” Flinn acknowledged that the organizations involved have given “limited comments to date.”
“You may have even interpreted that silence as inaction, defensiveness, or indifference, on ECFiber’s part — nothing could be further from the truth,” the letter reads. “ECFiber is investigating this matter, and we, along with ValleyNet, have done just as you suggest and engaged in discussions directly with the Hoyts’ attorney, and are pursuing every responsible avenue available to us to resolve this matter quickly.”
Meanwhile, the Hoyts say their anxiety persists. One cow, named Jeopardy, is pregnant, and Scott often struggles not to assume the worst when she arrives late from the pasture, trailing behind the other cows.
The farm’s former vet, Tom Stuwe, who recently retired, said cows are often most susceptible to “hardware disease” — the ailments caused by ingesting wire — while calving, when wire that has settled within the animal’s body can move and cause harm.
“Does she have hardware and is it causing her discomfort? We don’t know,” Scott said. “She looks well-conditioned and happy as a dry cow should, but unfortunately so did [another cow named] I-Lax before she calved and died.”
The Hoyts have harvested hay from their fields again, though they aren’t completely sure the wire is gone.
“Are we going to further add to this nightmare when we begin to feed this year’s haylage in the next month or so?” Scott said.
The Hoyts have an outstanding balance with a Canadian company that provided them feed after they dumped their contaminated silage. Eustis Cable paid for the first two loads of feed, and ECFiber has offered to pay the remainder, but only if the Hoyts agreed to release them from all other liability, according to the Hoyts.
“That caused a little bit of pause on our end, and from our attorneys,” Scott said. “We're not in a situation where we can release anybody right now of any responsibility.”
The Hoyts are concerned about possible future damages, as they’ve observed a decline in milk production. But Scott said he’s looking for accountability, and to ensure that the situation doesn’t repeat itself on other farms.
“We try to remain hopeful, along with others, that just maybe, some real change will occur so this kind of avoidable situation, and devastation, will not happen to anyone else,” Scott said.
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