Local News

Goats in Tunbridge sickened after consuming toxic chemical below utility pole

By Emma Cotton/VTDigger

Lauren Gitlin knew something was wrong when she found Potato, among the more energetic goats on her Tunbridge dairy farm, lying in the field where she had been grazing that day.

On the afternoon of July 31, Gitlin, the owner and sole operator of Villa Villekulla Farm in Tunbridge, had come to gather the goats and take them back to the barn for the night. Several of the goats were acting strangely — lethargic and unbalanced, she said. Then she spotted green coloring on one of the goats’ noses.

“It almost looked like paint,” she said. “It smelled really strongly of, like, chemical. And then she was kind of wobbling — she seemed almost drunk. I was like, oh, something is very wrong.”

Now, she knows that three goats found a discarded, almost-empty bag of copper naphthenate, a green, greasy substance used to preserve the base of wooden utility poles and prevent them from rotting.

Gitlin marks the second Tunbridge dairy farmer in the past year to make a startling discovery: Their livestock — first, cows at Hoyt Hill Farmstead; now, goats at Villa Villekulla about 10 minutes away — had ingested material left behind by a subcontractor who was working on utility projects, causing the animals to fall ill.

For several days, Gitlin worried the goats would die, but as of the beginning of September, all three of the affected animals appear to have made a full recovery.

Still, she’s dumping milk because of concerns it may be impacted and said the situation has been a huge hit to her business.

“I want there to be more awareness and more care from these companies that are working within historically agricultural territories,” Gitlin said. “I mean, this is an agricultural state. So the fact that people can be so careless is really disturbing and disappointing.”

Grazing in the hills

Gitlin operates her farm on a large swath of rented property located below power lines that stretch up a rolling hill. She’s been using the fields for grazing without any problems since she moved to the rural White River Valley town three years ago, she said.

Washington Electric Cooperative, Inc, a customer-owned operation based in East Montpelier, hired a contractor in 2005 to apply the material to the base of a utility pole located in Gitlin’s field, according to Patty Richards, general manager for Washington Electric.

That part of the practice is fairly standard, she said. Leaving a half-buried bag of the preservative behind is not.

“There was residual naphthenate on the bag — kind of like if you’re trying to squeeze out pudding from a plastic bag, you’re going to have some residual residue on the side,” Richards said. “They dug a hole in the ground, and they left the bag in the ground, which is not proper procedure.”

The contractor has since been purchased by an Ohio-based company called Osmose Utilities Services, Inc. Officials with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets say they’re working to locate the individual who performed the work to gain a clearer idea of what happened, but they have not found that person.

Gitlin, a former journalist and food scholar, has a total of 28 goats in her herd, but she only uses milk from six to make small-batch artisan products like skyr, a thick Icelandic-style yogurt. Gitlin moved to Vermont in 2014 and spent four years working for various goat dairy producers to learn the craft. She finally began selling her first products last fall.

Two of Gitlin’s six milking goats consumed the copper naphthenate, and though the animals appear to have recovered, she’s continued to dump their milk — 60 gallons so far, a third of her product — unsure whether it would be safe for consumption.

She said those 60 gallons amount to approximately $1,200 to $1,500 in lost product.

“It just kind of breaks my heart a little bit every day when I have to dump that milk down the drain,” she said. “I know how much work went into making it. My animals are working hard to create that milk every day — it puts a strain on their bodies, and for it to all be for naught, it’s just sad for me.”

No protocol 

Utility poles come pre-treated with pentachlorophenol, a substance that prevents them from rotting. Around 20 to 25 years later, workers re-treat the base of the poles with various types of wood preservatives, including copper naphthenate.

The toxic substance is painted onto the base of utility poles, about 2 feet underground. Then, workers wrap the pole with a cardboard membrane to prevent any of the substance from leaching into the surrounding dirt.

While the effects of copper are fairly well known, the effects of the second part of the substance are less known. Copper naphthenate is created from a reaction between copper salts and naphthenic acids, which are “usually obtained as by-products in petroleum refining,” according to a 2010 handbook on pollution prevention. Gitlin learned, in trying to find a lab, that there are not easy ways to test for naphthenate.

Cary Giguere, who directs the Agency of Agriculture’s Public Health and Agrichemical Resource Management division, said that’s because “it’s not a typical active ingredient.”

He said he was hoping a state lab could perform tests, which would clear the milk for public consumption and allow Gitlin to continue selling all of her products. But the state lab is not equipped to test for safe levels of copper naphthenate.

“For better or worse, there’s no precedent for this type of thing. There’s no answer. There’s no protocol,” Gitlin said. She eventually found a lab that might be able to develop a test, “but it’s a $7,000 bill.”

In the meantime, she’s going to continue dumping her milk. Gitlin’s veterinarian, Royalton-based Taylor Hull, said the substance’s impact on the animals is also relatively unknown.

Unfortunate situation

Richards, with Washington Electric, said the company is taking the situation seriously.

“We’re super concerned about the goats’ welfare, and we want to do right by our members.”

Richards said she thinks the incident is a “one-off,” but Washington Electric plans to send crews to check each utility pole up and down the line from the pole that was affected.

Washington Electric is prepared to reimburse Gitlin for her losses through an insurance claim, Richards said, but Gitlin is hesitant to send along an invoice because her costs are ongoing, including continuously dumping milk.

Gitlin also said she’s received infrequent communications from the company. They didn’t immediately confirm that they would reimburse her for all of her losses, and they stopped responding in early August, except for some third-party communications through the Agency of Agriculture, until a reporter contacted them for comment this week, she said.

Gitlin, who only recently began garnering praise and recognition for the product she’s been selling for less than a year, said the incident has complicated the prospects of her emerging business.

“Certainly, I want to recover all of my lost income, but the things that are harder to calculate are the damage to my business at this stage,” she said. “There are these more abstract damages that I’m having a hard time really assessing or assigning a value to.”

Strike 2 in Tunbridge

Last fall, dairy farmers Amber and Scott Hoyt discovered that a subcontractor for Eustis Cable, which was working on a project for the communication union district ECFiber, left wire on their hay fields. After unknowingly chopping the wire and incorporating it into their hay, which as many as 70 cows consumed, the Hoyts lost three animals and incurred considerable expenses. Recently, the subcontractor’s insurance denied their claim, which has prompted the farmers to consider legal action.

Richards said Gitlin’s case has a few distinct differences from the Hoyts’ case, of which she said the company is “keenly aware.”

First, Gitlin has not lost any animals. Second, she does not consider the incident to be ongoing — the goats have recovered and likely will not be exposed to the same chemical again in the future.

“It’s dissimilar than the Hoyts’ situation, where they’ve got continual problems in their hay feed and stock,” she said. “This is not that situation.”

Still, Gitlin is calling for accountability and renewed awareness surrounding utilities’ hiring practices — much like the Hoyts. In that case, a group of 12 Tunbridge officials this summer delivered a letter to ECFiber asking the communications district to compensate the Hoyts, and the new leader of the Vermont Community Broadband Board called for better training for contractors.

Richards said due to the Hoyts’ story and Gitlin’s, they’re having internal conversations related to the practices of their contractors.

“We want to make sure all of our contractors are behaving in responsible ways and not leaving anything behind, whether it’s a spool of wire or tool or whatever,” she said.

For the love of goats

When Gitlin first determined that her goats had consumed the toxic substance, she called her vet, who recommended that Gitlin feed the affected goats charcoal.

“My littlest goat, Potato, was very clearly in a lot of pain and a lot of distress,” Gitlin said. “She was really, really sick.”

First thing in the morning, she would hurry to the barn, hoping Potato was still alive.

“She was in so much pain,” she said. “She was kind of whimpering — it was really heartbreaking because I could tell she was just suffering.”

Gitlin has a tattoo of one of her goats, named Mouse, on a portion of her upper body. Mouse was affected by the preservative, she said.

“During that week, when I thought that I was likely going to lose one or two of my goats, I was pretty raw, pretty broken,” she said, her voice breaking. “And I’m really grateful that they were able to come back around because, you know, they’re my family.”

Gitlin said she doesn’t think anyone had ill will or ill intent toward her, and she said she appreciates the help she’s gotten from those looking to ameliorate the situation. She’s also angry.

“I’m wondering why there hasn’t been clearer guidance for me, so that I can go back to doing my job and trying to build my small business,” she said. “On a day-to-day basis, every time I have to dump that milk down the drain,” she said, “it just makes me angry and sad.”

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