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Congressman demands AT&T, Verizon remove lead-shielded cables

Congressman Pat Ryan appears at a press conference in 2023. (Photo by Christopher Hennen / U.S. Army handout / Editing by The Desk)
Congressman Pat Ryan appears at a press conference in 2023. (Photo by Christopher Hennen / U.S. Army handout / Editing by The Desk)

A federal lawmaker representing a portion of New York state has sent a letter to the chief executives of AT&T and Verizon, demanding information about thousands of miles of lead-shielded cables that pose a potential risk to the environment and public health.

The letters follow an investigative report published by the Wall Street Journal earlier this month that claimed the telecoms knew miles of aerial, underground and underwater transmission lines containing lead insulation were laid decades ago, but did little to address the problem.

The Journal relied upon some of its own testing to reach the conclusion that underground and underwater leaded cables posed a potential health and safety hazard to nearby communities. Officials at AT&T and other telcoms knew about the issue, but felt it was better to leave the cables in place, because removing them could increase the chance of soil and water contamination, the report said.

Representatives for AT&T have come out swinging in the days since the Journal’s report was published, calling the newspaper’s testing methodologies “flawed,” pointing out that the Journal’s use of a dive team to collect samples was a “conflict of interest” because the same company was contracted by the lead plaintiffs in an environmental lawsuit against AT&T on the same matter, and saying the problematic cables represent only around 10 percent of its overall transmission lines.

Some financial analysts say clean-up costs and related expenses could cost AT&T as much as $84 million per year. The news has impacted the share prices of AT&T, Verizon and other telecom-related stocks.

The logo of telecom AT&T is seen on a building in Chicago.
The logo of telecom AT&T is seen on a building in Chicago. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons, Graphic by The Desk)

While AT&T was responsible for laying many of the transmission lines decades ago, some of the problematic cables are now owned by Verizon and other companies following the federal government’s break-up of AT&T into smaller regional companies in the 1980s. Verizon began as one of those businesses; the company that currently operates as AT&T was formerly known as SBC, a regional telecom, until the mid-2000s.

Verizon primarily offers land-based service in the northeastern part of the country, where it owns some of the older transmission lines at the center of the issue. Ryan represents areas of New York state where leaded cables owned by AT&T and Verizon have been discovered.

“For decades, big corporations have polluted our rivers and our drinking water, always putting their profit above the health and safety of our community — [and] this latest failure by Verizon and AT&T is no different,” Ryan said in a statement. “It is absolutely unacceptable that their negligence is now making it dangerous for our kids to even go to the playground. They need to clean up their mess and safely remove these cables immediately.”

In addition to his two letters to AT&T and Verizon, Ryan also sent a letter to executives at the U.S. Telecom Association, a trade group that represents big and small telephone and broadband Internet companies. The letters requested a wealth of information, including whether AT&T, Verizon and U.S. Telecom businesses are still using some or all of the problematic cables and the specific steps that the companies are taking to protect workers who perform service-related upgrades and repairs on those lines.

“Knowing that these aerial and submarine cables pose a public health and environmental threat, there must be clear oversight regulating their disposal and removal,” Ryan wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Desk on Thursday. “It is unacceptable that U.S. Telecom’s member companies continue to allow these cables to continue to leach lead into the environment.”

Ryan has asked the companies to provide answers to his questions by next Tuesday.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).