WASHINGTON, July 19, 2023 – AT&T said in a Tuesday court filing that it “strongly disagrees” with a report from the Wall Street Journal that alleged that lead-clad telecom cables in Lake Tahoe and elsewhere raise a significant public health concern and will halt removal of the cables.
The company had previously agreed to remove two lead-clad cables in Lake Tahoe at a cost of up to $1.5 million as part of a 2021 settlement with California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, which sued AT&T to remove the cables.
AT&T said in the filing that it believes it is in the public interest that the cables remain in place as they “pose no danger to those who work and play in the waters of Lake Tahoe.” It claims that it agreed to remove them in 2021 “simply to avoid the expense of litigation.”
The company said that its repeated testing on the cables, which are publicly available, supports the decision to keep the cables in ground and puts into question the validity of the WSJ’s report that “placed these cables at the center of what it claims is a national public health crisis.”
According to AT&T, WSJ depended entirely on data commissioned by the WSJ and that it was conducted by “individuals with clear agendas and conflicts of interest.” It claimed that some of the researchers were the same who prompted California Sportfishing Protection Alliance to issue the original lawsuit.
In fact, it cited a statement by Below the Blue, an organization responsible for sampling of cables in Lake Tahoe and elsewhere, that says “sampling locations were chosen in part by their likelihood to show high lead levels.”
Not only are the testing methods in question, the telecom said, but the results of the test commissioned by the WSJ “differ dramatically” from testing commissioned by AT&T in 2021 and other research which allegedly show that no lead was detected leaking from the cables and that the low levels found in the water were likely not a release from the cables, but from another background source.
“In the spirit of transparency and informed public health, the parties should agree to maintain these cables in place to permit further analysis by any qualified and independent interested party, including the Environmental Protection Agency, and allow the safety of these cables to be litigated with objective scientific evidence rather than sensationalized media coverage,” it stated.
Tom Neltner, senior director of safer chemicals at nonprofit advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, recommended in a Monday letter to the Environmental Protection Agency administrator that the agency assess the condition of the underwater cables to determine their condition and anticipated releases in the environment, including risks posed by their removal or by leaving them in place. AT&T asserted that the best course of action would be to maintain the status quo until the EPA has evaluated the environmental concerns of the cables.
AT&T added that it “would never dismiss any health risk or concern” to its customers. It committed to add a voluntary testing program for any employee who works or has worked with lead-clad cables, conduct additional testing beyond Lake Tahoe, and perform in-person site visits to inspect condition and determine if any action is necessary.
The WSJ report claimed that lead contamination exists in more than 2,000 telecom cables that crisscross the country owned by various providers. Share prices for AT&T, Verizon, Frontier, Lumen and others dropped following the report; some, like AT&T’s, dipped to their lowest price in decades.
One financial analyst firm, New Street Research, estimates that there are roughly 48 million addresses connected to lead-clad cables. It predicts that some of these cables will be updated by federal funding to cross the digital divide, namely the $42.5-billion Broadband, Equity Access and Deployment program. For the rest, the telecom industry will be left with a $59 billion cost to clean up.
“AT&T likely has the highest [financial] exposure overall, followed by Verizon and Lumen,” New Street Research wrote in a note to investors.
New Street analysis added that the government has a tough choice in deciding who will pay for removing the cables: the companies, telecom customers or taxpayers. “If they [Congress] force ILECs to pay the bill, some will be forced into bankruptcy delaying the remediation process in those markets potentially indefinitely. It will significantly slow the deployment of fiber infrastructure in the U.S. It would also leave less resources available to bring broadband to unserved and underserved markets via the BEAD program,” the note said.
“Regardless of who pays, this will be a major overhang for the incumbent local exchange carriers for some time,” it concluded.
“The telecommunications companies responsible for these phone lines must act swiftly and responsibly to ensure the mitigation of any environmental and public health effects,” Senator Edward Markey, D-Mass., wrote this week in a letter to telecom trade association USTelecom. “This is corporate irresponsibility of the worst kind.”
Markey asked the association and its members, which includes AT&T, to identify how much of its cabling contains lead and where those cables are located. Most U.S. telecom companies stopped using such cabling in the 1960s, but the cables are still in use in many areas of the country.
A Verizon spokesperson said that the company is “taking these concerns regarding lead-sheathed cables very serious.” It added that it has not deployed these cables in decades and that they only make a “small percentage” of the company’s existing network.
Consolidated Communications added that it “takes the health and safety of our works, neighbors and the communities in which we live and operate very seriously.”
Lumen said that it is “redoubling efforts by working with outside experts to prioritize and sequence our investigative efforts, including site testing and implementation of science-based steps where advisable.”
The Communications Workers of America said in a statement last week that it is “actively expanding its collaborations with researchers to delve into groundbreaking studies about lead depositions in bone in telecommunications workers.” The work seeks to better empower works to take action to monitor and protect their health.