EPA requests meeting with AT&T, Verizon about lead cables

Lead-sheathed telco cables are back in the spotlight, as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has urged telecom companies to meet to discuss potential lead hazards across the country.

According to a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article published last week, the EPA wrote letters to AT&T and Verizon asking to discuss the companies’ granular sampling data related to their legacy lead cables. The meeting would take place at EPA headquarters in Washington sometime this month.

Following the WSJ’s exposé last July that found at least 2,000 old telco cables in the U.S. containing lead, the EPA launched its own investigation into the cables. The agency found more than 100 soil and sediment readings with lead above the regulator’s safety guideline for children at phone lead cable sites in three states.

Although that data is preliminary, it supports the EPA’s determination that the investigation of lead telecom cables is a “high priority,” Grant Cope, senior counselor to EPA Administrator Michael Regan, told the Journal.

The EPA last summer ordered both AT&T and Verizon to provide results of lead inspections they’ve undertaken along with sampling results and data. Both companies have stated lead-sheathed cables only make up a small percentage of their copper footprints and that the lead found does not post a public health risk.

The EPA said the lead found in its readings doesn’t require an emergency response or constitute an immediate health threat, according to the WSJ article. That's partly because many of the spots the agency tested were covered by grass, which the agency said could act as a barrier to reduce exposure.

However, the EPA’s handbook for lead-contaminated residential sites says grass cover doesn’t necessarily guard against lead hazards over time.

The crux of this latest lead cable development, according to New Street Research analysts, is the investigation “is far from finished” but “no one is in crisis mode.”

New Street’s Blair Levin said the agency is still trying to determine whether the lead levels were caused by telco networks or other sources, as well as “how best to remediate the problematic pipes.”

But the cost of the investigations is “unlikely to be material to [telco] investors.” The “primary financial risk” to ILECS will likely be the cost of remediation.

New Street has estimated remediation costs for AT&T and Verizon to total as much as $6.8 billion and $4.1 billion, respectively, though predictions have varied across the industry.

“But, and this may be the most critical point, if the EPA does not think there is an emergency, then the remediation will be done, more or less, in the regular course of business as the telcos replace their old lines,” Levin said in a note to investors.

Update 1/17/24: After this story's publication, USTelecom, a trade group that represents both AT&T and Verizon, reached out to Fierce with the following statement.

“There is nothing new in the Wall Street Journal's story last week. From the beginning, our member companies have worked collaboratively with the EPA. The companies requested to meet with the agency to discuss the technical results when they submitted them last year. There is still a desire to do so. The bottom line is that the test results continue to show telecom lead-sheathed cables pose no significant public health risk."

“Our member companies have already met with the EPA in-person and remotely on several occasions on this issue going back to the fall. Again, this is not a new development.”