WSJ exposes major environmental issue for AT&T and Verizon

The Wall Street Journal published an investigative journalism exposé over the weekend, reporting that AT&T, Verizon and other telecom companies have left a massive network across the U.S. of old cables covered in toxic lead.

The WSJ obviously worked on this story for a significant amount of time and spent considerable resources. For instance, it paid independent laboratories to test samples from about 130 underwater-cable sites.

The paper said that lead from at least 2,000 old telco cables has degraded over time and contaminated myriad locations in water, in the soil and from overhead lines. Many of these locations are in places where people live and work. Some of the locations are in schoolyards. According to its independent tests, some lead levels in sediment and soil measured 14.5 times the EPA threshold for areas where children play. “Doctors say that no amount of contact with lead is safe, whether ingested or inhaled, particularly for children’s physical and mental development,” stated the Journal.

The U.S. has made a huge effort to eliminate lead from paint, gasoline and pipes. But the lead-covered telco cables seem to have flown under the radar, until now.

Most of the cables in question were deployed by American Telephone & Telegraph between the late 1800s and the 1960s. The cables contain bundles of copper wires surrounded by a thick jacket of lead for insulation.

The Journal’s research found that modern telecom companies spawned from the breakup of Ma Bell have known about the lead problems with their old cables. But they have failed to do anything about it.

The WSJ reached out to AT&T and Verizon for comment.

AT&T said in a written statement: “The health, safety and well-being of our people, our customers, and our communities is of paramount importance” but that the Journal’s reporting on lead-sheathed cables “conflicts not only with what independent experts and longstanding science have stated about the safety of lead-clad telecom cables but also our own testing.”

Verizon said it is “taking these concerns regarding lead-sheathed cables very seriously” and is testing sites where the Journal found contamination. It added: “There are many lead-sheathed cables in our network (and elsewhere in the industry) that are still used in providing critical voice and data services, including access to 911 and other alarms, to customers nationwide.”

A spokesperson for the trade group USTelecom said, “The U.S. telecommunications industry stands ready to engage constructively on this issue.”

AT&T’s statement to the Journal seems to conflict with a 2010 presentation about employee safety that the company made when it said, “Underground cable presents real possibilities for overexposure” for workers removing them. “Some older metropolitan areas may still have over 50% lead cable,” it added.

What’s next?

New Street Research policy analyst Blair Levin wrote that the Journal’s story will likely result in calls to investigate from Congress and various federal agencies such as the EPA, OSHA and the FCC.

But there are facts that aren’t clear. For example, who has the power to force remediation; and who owns the cables?

Because the lead-covered cables in question are quite old, and because of the breakup of the old Bell Telephone company, it can be difficult to determine which current company actually owns the cables in any given location. In some of the locations studied by the WSJ, telecom companies have already disavowed ownership of the cables.

“Still, the WSJ article raises the prospects that the telephone companies may face significant financial exposure down the road that the market has not anticipated,” wrote Levin.

He added, “We can’t help but notice the bizarre moment that we are in; just as the government is about to provide telcos (and others) tens of billions to build out the fiber networks that the government has decided we need for the 21st Century, the government may decide it needs to collect large sums from the telcos to remediate the harm done in building the copper networks we needed in the 19th and 20th Century.”