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Communications Infrastructure

Policy and Politics

A few thoughts on Lead-Clad Telecom Cables

July 26, 2023 | The Wall Street Journal published an extensive article last week asserting that lead-clad telecom cables, in the air, in the ground and under water, raise significant public health concerns. The reaction, particularly from the investment community, was swift, with some analysts reporting the potential for billions of dollars in remediation expense. Telecom stocks were downgraded and almost all companies with legacy ILEC networks took a valuation hit.

While any claim involving lead exposure needs to be carefully assessed and understood, the reaction to the WSJ article did not, in my opinion, take into consideration the full history of the issue or the data and facts as known today.

Lead is ubiquitous in the environment and its risks are well known. Homes built before 1978 often contained lead-based paint and, as Flint reminded us, certain water pipes contain lead. Lead can also be found in toys, jewelry and products used in certain crafts, like stained glass.

The critical question is whether the presence of lead in any particular situation creates the potential for harmful exposure. As it relates to telecom cables, we know that despite decades of scientific research on lead and its risks, neither regulators nor researchers have ever identified telecom cables as a significant source of lead exposure for the pubic. Indeed, in the EPA’s 2022 “Strategy to Reduce Lead Exposures and Disparities in U.S. Communities,” lead-sheathed telecom cables were not even identified as a source of lead exposure. Similarly, lead-sheathed cables have been used in medium-voltage underground power distribution applications in the United States since the late 1800s, although research has likewise concluded that the risk of exposure from these cables is very low.

The Journal’s reporting on lead-clad cables depended primarily on environmental testing that, according to its reporters, was commissioned by the Journal. To the best of my knowledge, the Journal has not yet publicly released its complete testing information or insights into its testing methods. Preliminary reaction by the telcos suggest that they have significant questions about the Journal’s methodology and results.

For example, one site referenced in the Journal’s reporting was Lake Tahoe, a site that has been the subject of litigation in California. There, the test results reported by the Journal differ quite dramatically from the test results reported by AT&T as filed in the pubic record of the litigation. AT&T’s testing, which was done by independent experts, found that no lead was detected leaching from the cables and that the very low level of lead concentrations detected in the lake was characteristic of background levels.

Investigations into the WSJ allegations will be commenced, to be sure. A group of New York Agencies have already asked NY State telcos to provide an inventory of lead-containing aerial and buried cables owned by the company. At the federal level, the EPA appears to be positioned to take the lead on the federal government response, with the FCC providing telecommunications expertise. The EPA will no doubt conduct a detailed assessment of the claims made in an effort to draw data-driven conclusions. And as the EPA commences its work, the telcos will have ample opportunity to be heard. On the Hill, there has thus far been no major effort to conduct hearings or otherwise investigate, other than encouraging the appropriate agencies to engage in fact gathering and analysis.

In short, while the issue will likely remain in the news, there is much analysis that will need to be done by the EPA or other regulatory body before the real public health risks on this issue, if any, can be well understood and quantified. And that work must be completed before there can be a full understanding of what, if any, remediation is necessary.

Complex policy issues like those raised by the WSJ article are rarely resolved quickly. Instead of rushing to conclusions, the better approach at this stage is to allow for the fact gathering to be commenced and the necessary analysis completed. My many years of managing such complex issues tells me that early judgments on risks and potential financial exposure are rarely correct.

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