WSJ: Telecoms Left Lead Pipes Across the Country

AT&T, Verizon and other telecoms have left behind approximately 2,000 miles of cables wrapped in lead across parts of the country under water, in the ground and on poles, The Wall Street Journal reported. Reporters found the cables, the relics of the old Bell telephone network, haven’t been addressed by either the companies or environmental regulators.

Lead levels in sediment and soil at more than four dozen locations tested by the WSJ exceeded safety recommendations set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” it reports. The media source notes the telecoms have known about the lead-covered cables “and the potential risks of exposure to their workers,” according to documents and interviews with former employees.  

In response to the WSJ’s reporting, AT&T, Verizon and other telecom companies that succeeded Ma Bell said: “they don’t believe cables in their ownership are a public health hazard or a major contributor to environmental lead, considering the existence of other sources of lead closer to people’s homes,” according to the WSJ. They said they follow regulatory safety guidelines for workers dealing with lead, it reported.

However, the companies and USTelecom said they would work together to address any concerns related to the lead-sheathed cables. “The U.S. telecommunications industry stands ready to engage constructively on this issue,” said a spokeswoman for USTelecom.

“The health, safety and well-being of our people, our customers, and our communities is of paramount importance,” AT&T told the WSJ in a written statement. The company said the WSJ’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 told the WSJ in a statement that it is “taking these concerns regarding lead-sheathed cables very seriously,” and is testing sites where the WSJ 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.”

The cables were initially laid between the 1800s and the 1960s. The cables, often containing hundreds of bundled copper wires, had a thick jacket of lead for insulation, to prevent corrosion and to keep out water. For underwater cables, steel cords sometimes surround the lead for further protection.

Some former telecom executives said that in the past, companies believed it was safer to leave lead cables in place, rather than remove them, given that the lead could be released in the process. That’s why, when technology advanced and companies turned to plastic sheathing and, later, to fiber optics, they often left the old lines in place.

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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