In a filing with a U.S. District Court yesterday, AT&T pushed back against allegations made by the Wall Street Journal regarding decades-old lead-clad telecom cabling. In a series of articles published earlier this month, the WSJ alleged that those cables pose a public health threat.
The AT&T filing was part of an ongoing lawsuit between the company and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, which has argued that old AT&T cabling on the bottom of Lake Tahoe poses a health risk because the lead sheath around the cable can degrade over time, allegedly releasing harmful level of lead into the environment.
The lead-clad cabling hasn’t been used since the 1950s or 1960s.
The lead cabling allegations are an important issue, not just for AT&T, but for other long-lived telecom companies. New Street Research today updated its estimate of industry-wide U.S. lead remediation costs, if required, to between $4.4 billion and $21 billion. That’s a big drop from the $60 billion that the researchers initially estimated, but still a large sum.
AT&T had agreed to remove the Lake Tahoe cables without admitting any wrongdoing, but now wants to leave them in place. According to the filing “AT&T believes it is now in the public interest to leave the cables in place to permit further analysis by interested parties, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”
In the filing, Paul Hastings, an attorney representing AT&T, notes that the Lake Tahoe lead testing commissioned by the Wall Street Journal was conducted by the same company that did the testing for the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. The WSJ did not disclose this in the articles that it published, which according to AT&T “calls into question the integrity of the reporting.”
AT&T’s attorney also argues that the WSJ failed to understand three important concepts involving lead levels. These include concentration levels, exposure and risks.
“The mere presence of a potential hazard (e.g. lead) without exposure considerations (e.g. are people actually ingesting lead and, if so, from what source, in what amounts and for how long?) provides no meaningful information about human health risks,” the AT&T filing argues. “It is incorrect to suggest that a public health risk exists in the absence of that critical exposure information.”
The AT&T filing also notes that the Lake Tahoe lead testing commissioned by the WSJ contradicts testing on the lake commissioned by AT&T. In the testing that AT&T commissioned, samples were “largely non-detect for lead, including in the samples collected nearest the subject cables (within approximately four inches,” AT&T’s attorney argues.
The filing goes on to argue that “in the few collected samples where lead was detected, concentrations were very low.”
AT&T’s attorney also argues that “when exposed to the elements, lead naturally forms a ‘protective layer’ of insoluble compounds that . . . prevent[s] the release of lead from the cables into the environment.”
According to the filing, AT&T has engaged another third-party testing firm to do additional testing next to the cables in Lake Tahoe. The company also said it is conducting additional testing beyond Lake Tahoe, including locations referenced in WSJ’s reporting.
Meanwhile, TDS Telecom issued a statement on Monday stating that it did an internal investigation which determined that the company had only 10 miles of lead-clad cabling in its network. The company didn’t respond to questions from Telecompetitor asking for more details.
Also on Monday, Shentel issued a statement saying it had no lead-clad cabling in its network.
Updated with a new lead remediation estimate from New Street Research