The Wall Street Journal is accusing AT&T, Verizon and other major telcos of potentially posing a health threat from decades-old cables covered in toxic lead, including cables installed under water, in the soil and on poles. According to the WSJ report, the lead degrades over time and is released into the water, soil or air.

The WSJ details the comprehensive process it used in coming to this conclusion, which involved gathering public records that are as much as 100 years old, hiring divers to investigate underwater cables, using multiple laboratories for testing, and seeking the opinion of various experts.

Telcos haven’t used cabling containing lead since 1964, according to the WSJ. The reporters also noted that even though telcos are replacing traditional cabling with fiber, the old cabling is typically left in place.

The investigation was triggered by a lawsuit in California in which AT&T agreed to replace underwater lead cables but did not admit any wrongdoing.

The report also cites evidence suggesting that telcos knew about lead cable risks for years.

AT&T gave WSJ a statement saying that the report “conflicts not only with what independent experts have long stated about the safety of lead-clad telecom cables but also our own testing.”

Moving Forward

In a research note, New Street Research analyst and former FCC official Blair Levin speculated on what all this might mean for the telcos. According to Levin:

  • At least one federal agency is likely to do an investigation
  • It isn’t clear what powers the federal agencies such as EPA, OSHA and the FCC may have to fine or force remediation
  • Private litigants and states attorneys general and public utility commission may consider bringing actions designed to force telcos to pay for damages and remediation. That could be a lengthy process.
  • The companies are likely to attempt to have government use non-company sources, such as infrastructure funds, unspent COVID funds and others to help pay for remediation

Levin sums it up by saying “Like the lead itself, the issue raised by the WSJ article can leak into other issues.”

USTelecom Weighs In

USTelecom called Telecompetitor’s attention to a web page on the USTelecom site with additional information about telecom cabling. Among the assertions made there:

  • The U.S. telecommunications industry began to phase out placement of new lead-sheathed telecom cables in the 1950s, after developing a new type of sheathing. Some legacy lead-sheathed telecom cables still provide customer voice and data services, including connecting 911 service, fire alarms, and other central monitoring stations.
  • As with many other types of infrastructure, such as rail lines and pipelines, in some situations, telecom cables are appropriately left in place when no longer in current use and may stand by to be used if and when needed.
  • We have not seen, nor have U.S. regulators identified, evidence that legacy lead-sheathed telecom cables are a leading cause of lead exposure or the cause of a public health issue.

Updated with information from USTelecom

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