AT&T, Telcos Lash Back at Lead Cables Report

The cost of replacing degraded underwater cables might not be as high as expected, according to two financial firms.

James Anderson, Senior News Editor

July 20, 2023

6 Min Read
Fiber Optics and lead cables

The Wall Street Journal’s investigative reporting on decades-old underwater lead cables and their impact on public health has led to a standoff between telecom providers, regulators and activists.

The newspaper argued in a July 9 investigative report that sample testing at four dozen underwater-cable sites exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s safety recommendations with their lead quantity. The Journal placed the blame on lead alloys that covered cables in the Bell System’s regional telephone network. The telecom monopoly built many of those lead-sheathed cables in the 1880s and 1960s before its breakup in 1982. That lead over the years has degraded and spread into water and soil, the Journal reported.

“For many years, telecom companies have known about the lead-covered cables and the potential risks of exposure to their workers, according to documents and interviews with former employees,” the article’s authors write. “They were also aware that lead was potentially leaching into the environment, but haven’t meaningfully acted on potential health risks to the surrounding communities or made efforts to monitor the cables.”

The telcos that once comprised Ma Bell and their industry association have disputed the Journal’s testing results and methodology. They have emphasized they have at different points in time removed these lead cables. Amid a broader industry shift away from copper-based networks, attention has shifted again to what these providers should do with legacy infrastructure.

“We plan to work cooperatively with regulators and other stakeholders on a risk assessment,” AT&T wrote in a July 18 update.

AT&T in a July 17 open letter called upon the EPA to study underwater cables in Lake Tahoe, the subject of an ongoing dispute between AT&T a local water quality advocacy group. The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance sued the company over two underwater cables in 2021. AT&T in a settlement denied that it owned the cables but agreed to remove them.

However, last week AT&T stated that it and the plaintiff had reached an “impasse” on removing the cables.

“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 EPA, and allow the safety of these cables to be litigated with objective scientific evidence rather than sensationalized media coverage,” wrote Navi Dhillon of Paul Hastings LLP, AT&T’s legal counsel. “To do otherwise would give the misimpression that these cables present a health risk, which they do not, and would destroy evidence necessary for all relevant facts to be made public in court.”

The Report on Lead Cables

The Journal’s series of articles featured testimony from cable-adjacent residents and former telco employees, as well as data from sample tests it commissioned. Marine Taxonomic Services took water samples from different locations, including Lake Tahoe. One area of Lake Tahoe contained lead amounts of 5,510 parts per billion and 38,000 parts per billion.

That’s quite a lot. According to the Journal, the water sample went 2,533 times higher than the EPA limit for drinking water.

Reporting from the Journal revealed internal messaging from AT&T that showed their concerns about how lead could impact the health of its workers. The article concludes, however, that telcos in some cases found the process of removing cables “daunting,” including both the cost and potential negative impact of removing them.

But AT&T countered, as it has elsewhere, that its own commissioned testers only detected “low lead-level concentrations” in Lake Tahoe. AT&T also countered that Marine Taxonomic Services’ CEO co-founded Below the Blue, a nonprofit that has advocated for removal of the cables in the past.

AT&T noted in a court filing that lead-clad cables comprise less than 10% of its …… copper network.

Telcos, Stocks Regain Footing

AT&T and its peers’ stocks are rebounding after the Journal’s report gave them a serious drubbing. AT&T’s share price plummeted to $13.45 on Tuesday, its lowest in three decades, before rising to $14.45 on Wednesday. Verizon, Lumen and Frontier all hit yearly lows.

Moreover, telcos are hitting back hard on the Journal’s report. USTelecom, which represents dozens of broadband providers, rolled out a “Telecom Cable Facts” sheet.

“Many considerations go into determining whether legacy lead-sheathed telecom cables should be removed or should be left in place, including those regarding the safety of workers who must handle the cables, potential impacts on the environment, the age and composition of the cables, their geographic location, and customer needs as well as the needs of the business and infrastructure demands,” the industry association wrote.

Brian Washburn covers communications and networking services for Omdia, which is also part of Informa Tech. He pointed to the responsibility of the U.S. government in assisting with the problem.


Omdia’s Brian Washburn

“I believe industry association USTelecom is correct that the use of lead compounds in cable sheathing in the U.S. began to be phased out in the 1950s. The revelation that these cables still exist is largely a legacy more than a half-century old. The cables were installed at a time that the telephone companies were heavily regulated monopolies, tasked by government to provide critical communications and universal service. If government played a role in directing the buildout, it seems reasonable that government has a part to play with assessment and funding remediation. A possible next step might involve risk profiling known legacy cable deployments. Since these telecommunications cables are not accessible to the public, it may make sense to prioritize other types of pollution that present the highest risk to vulnerable populations,” Washburn told Channel Futures.

Mike Dano of Channel Futures’ sister site, Light Reading, writes that the financial costs of replacing some 200,000 miles of fiber are not as high as previously expected. The financial firm TD Cowen estimated the costs at $246 million per year.

“AT&T is telling us that the total exposure is 200,000 route miles or less. Additionally, they are advocating that two-thirds of these lines are buried or in conduit,” Dano quoted TD Cowen as saying. “The scientific conclusion for addressing lead cable is to encapsulate any parts that might contact humans, and otherwise leave it in place. This would apply to the two-thirds figure AT&T gave, in our view. We believe the implication for AT&T’s data is that the route miles that should be addressed most immediately is about 3.3% (or less).”

Raymond James projected potential removal costs between $264 million and $1.2 billion.

Want to contact the author directly about this story? Have ideas for a follow-up article? Email James Anderson or connect with him on LinkedIn.


About the Author(s)

James Anderson

Senior News Editor, Channel Futures

James Anderson is a news editor for Channel Futures. He interned with Informa while working toward his degree in journalism from Arizona State University, then joined the company after graduating. He writes about SD-WAN, telecom and cablecos, technology services distributors and carriers. He has served as a moderator for multiple panels at Channel Partners events.

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