TDS details lead cable findings, Verizon, AT&T still cagey

The Wall Street Journal’s investigative report on cable lead contamination has prompted telcos to examine their own networks for possible health risks. TDS Telecom on Monday disclosed it found approximately 10 miles of lead-covered cables across its network.

According to the WSJ, at least 2,000 old telco cables contain lead that’s degraded over time and has contaminated the ground, soil and water in myriad locations. Many of these locations are in places where people live and work, including schoolyards.

TDS issued a statement saying it’s “identifying next steps to address the very limited amount of lead cabling it estimates is in its network. TDS Telecom strives to follow all applicable local, state and federal laws where it provides service.”

Fierce reached out to TDS for additional comment and an operator spokesperson said the information in the release “[is all] the information we are prepared to share at this time.”

Following the publication of the WSJ report, telcos like AT&T, Consolidated Communications, Frontier, Lumen and Verizon saw their stocks tumble. TD Cowen said while the financial outcome for these companies is “too early to size,” potential liabilities range from near-zero to tens-of-billions of dollars.

Verizon has begun investigating the extent of potential lead contamination across its cable footprint, Bloomberg first reported on Monday.

“We are taking these concerns regarding lead-sheathed cables very seriously,” a Verizon spokesperson told Fierce, adding lead-sheathed infrastructure “has not been deployed in decades by Verizon or its predecessor companies.”

The spokesperson said lead-covered cables make up “only a small percentage” of Verizon’s existing network and noted lead in the environment can come from various industrial uses other than telecom, “including electric utilities, water pipes, paint, engine fuels and more.”

A Consolidated representative said based on current information, it believes legacy lead-sheathed cables “constitute a very small percentage of our network.”

“Consolidated Communications takes the health and safety of our workers, neighbors and the communities in which we live and operate very seriously. We operate in a highly regulated industry and follow applicable local, state and federal environmental laws and health and safety regulations,” the rep told Fierce.

Consolidated added it will continue to “work collaboratively with regulators, the industry and our trade association to engage in constructive conversations on this topic.”

For AT&T’s part, a spokesperson said, “We are conducting additional testing, including at locations identified in The Journal’s stories.”

Lumen noted it has “thoughtfully managed” the “relatively small amount” of lead-covered cables in its network.

“We're redoubling those efforts by working with outside experts to prioritize and sequence our investigative efforts, including site testing and implementation of science-based steps where advisable,” said a Lumen rep.

There is also concern about how lead contamination impacts telecom workers. Communications Workers of America (CWA) issued a statement last week saying its Occupational Safety and Health Department is “actively expanding its collaboration with researchers” to learn more about the long-term consequences of chronic lead exposures.

“CWA did not initiate a recent article about lead in telecommunications and its impact on the environment and workers published by the Wall Street Journal,” stated CWA. “While we appreciate the attention to this important issue, we chose not to comment or provide any internal records for the piece in order to prioritize and protect the privacy of our members.”