AT&T cites data downplaying lead cable risks, EPA taking issue 'very seriously'

Fallout continues from the Wall Street Journal’s investigative journalism exposé that showed telecom companies in the U.S. have left behind a massive network of copper cables covered in toxic lead. This week AT&T CEO John Stankey said “there is no public health crisis” to worry about, citing the recent release of lead test results by his company, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state of New York.

Despite Stankey’s remarks, the EPA has said it is still taking the lead issue “very seriously.”

At the Goldman Sachs Communacopia + Technology Conference Stankey said AT&T’s recent tests at Lake Tahoe, a location mentioned in the WSJ article, established that there’s “no public health crisis or risk” at that site. He said AT&T conducted additional testing at a Michigan site and filed results with the EPA which also indicated no "risk to human life.”

This week the EPA released results from its own test conducted in West Orange, N.J., another site flagged by the WSJ investigation. The EPA's analysis from soil lead sampling near telecom cables concluded “there are no immediate health threats to nearby residents.”

Following the Journal's exposé New York Governor Kathy Hochul quickly instructed the state's Department of Public Service, Department of Health and Department of Environmental Conservation to investigate the contaminated sites.

Last month, the state announced it would reopen Wappingers Falls, where the WSJ reported lead-clad cable was contributing to soil contamination, as new tests showed “no evidence of elevated or widespread lead contamination in the area sampled,” and that lead levels in the park met state and federal safety standards for children’s play areas.

Stankey noted the findings in Tahoe, New York and New Jersey were “inconsistent" with the Journal's test results despite being in the "exact same areas."

“The Wall Street Journal was overdriving their headlights by declaring a public health crisis associated with lead-clad infrastructure," said Stankey.

**9/7/23 Update: After publication of this story, AT&T stressed that Stankey does take the issue "very seriously" and he said as much during the Goldman conference.

EPA's testing

Notably, the EPA said some soil samples in West Orange did show lead concentrations above the agency’s screening level of 400 parts per million. The sampled areas were primarily covered with grass, however, which the EPA said acts as a natural barrier to reduce exposure and prevent soil dust from being easily disturbed. The EPA's assessment also considered that the site areas are not places where children typically spend extended periods of time.

When contacted by Fierce, the EPA did not comment on whether the latest lead test results — which do suggest that risk to public health could be low — should affect the urgency of remediation plans, but emphasized “the science is clear: there is no known safe blood lead level, especially for our children.”

“We take the issues raised in these articles very seriously and will move expeditiously under our statutory authorities to protect the public from potential legacy pollution,” said an EPA representative.

In July the EPA sent letters to Verizon and AT&T legally requiring both companies to provide results of lead inspections they’ve undertaken as well as sampling results and data. AT&T has said it estimates the contamination spans less than 10% of its copper footprint, while Verizon claimed its copper network is composed of less than 540,000 miles, of which it said lead-sheathed cable only make up a “small percentage."

The EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management and Regional offices are still “coordinating closely” with state environmental agencies to assess potential contamination at the sites identified by the Journal, the EPA rep told Fierce, with a “priority on evaluating areas with vulnerable communities and sites closely linked with children, such as schools and playgrounds.”

There's still a lot of ground (and air) to cover. The Journal reported lead contamination from at least 2,000 old telco cables across the country. According to its tests, some lead levels in sediment and soil measured 14.5 times the EPA threshold for areas where children play. 

EPA will conduct more independent sampling starting at two locations: Coal Center, PA and West Orange, N.J., in coordination with those states. The rep said the agency is also in touch with the state of New York to review samples it took at Temple Park in Wappinger Falls.  

Stankey reassured that AT&T will “continue to work with our regulators who are the authority on these areas like the EPA. We’ll make adjustments if something suggests we need to make an adjustment." But, doubling down, he concluded: “We don’t believe that there’s a public health crisis right now. We believe we’ve been responsible in applying the laws.”