AT&T says lead cables in Lake Tahoe “pose no danger” and should stay in place

A man with an umbrella walking past a building with an AT&T logo.

AT&T’s legacy telephone network may have nearly 200,000 miles of lead-covered cables, according to an estimate by AT&T submitted in a court filing.

“Based on its records, AT&T estimates that lead-clad cables represent less than 10 percent of its copper footprint of roughly two million sheath miles of cable, the overwhelming majority of which remains in active service,” AT&T wrote in a court filing yesterday in US District Court for the Eastern District of California. “More than two thirds of its lead-clad cabling is either buried or in conduit, followed by aerial cable, and with a very small portion running underwater. There are varying costs of installation, maintenance, and removal by cable type (aerial, buried, buried in conduit, underwater).”

Reacting to the court filing, financial analyst firm Raymond James & Associates wrote in a research note, “AT&T is telling us that the total exposure is 200,000 route miles or less.” With about two-thirds of the lead cables either buried or installed inside conduit, “We believe the implication for AT&T’s data is that the route miles that should be addressed most immediately is about 3.3 percent (or less),” the analyst firm wrote.

AT&T’s new court filing came in a case filed against AT&T subsidiary Pacific Bell by the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA) in January 2021. The sportfishing group sued AT&T over cables that are allegedly “damaged and discharging lead into Lake Tahoe.”

AT&T: No need to remove Lake Tahoe cables for now

The two underwater cables run along the bottom of the western side of Lake Tahoe for a total of eight miles. AT&T “contends that it stopped using the Cables in or around the 1980s or earlier, that the Easements therefore have terminated, and that Defendant no longer owns the Cables,” according to a November 2021 settlement.

AT&T agreed in that settlement to remove the cables but now says it is at an “impasse” with the CSPA regarding removal. “In this matter, AT&T has always maintained that its lead-clad telecommunications cables pose no danger to those who work and play in the waters of Lake Tahoe, but in 2021, AT&T agreed to remove them simply to avoid the expense of litigation,” an AT&T lawyer at the firm Paul Hastings wrote yesterday in a letter to the plaintiff that was attached to the court filing.

AT&T said “the parties should agree to maintain these cables in place to permit further analysis by any qualified and independent interested party, including the EPA, and allow the safety of these cables to be litigated with objective scientific evidence rather than sensationalized media coverage. To do otherwise would give the misimpression that these cables present a health risk, which they do not, and would destroy evidence necessary for all relevant facts to be made public in court.”

To support its argument, AT&T cited the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund’s position that the EPA should investigate underwater cables:

AT&T is not alone in this conclusion. In fact, just yesterday, in an open letter to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Environmental Defense Fund recommended that the “EPA should assess the condition of the underwater cables to determine their condition, their current and anticipated releases to the environment, and the risks posed by their removal or leaving them in place.” AT&T agrees.

The Environmental Defense Fund’s statement was regarding underwater cables in general and not specific to Lake Tahoe.

AT&T denies confirming it would remove cables

AT&T’s stance that it won’t remove the Lake Tahoe cables any time soon is apparently a surprise to the plaintiff. The CSPA said in a court filing last week that in a Zoom meeting on July 10, “AT&T confirmed that it is prepared to commence the removal process on September 6, 2023, as long as the new permit request that AT&T submitted to State Parks in May is approved by State Park.”

AT&T’s filing said the company never “confirmed” that it is prepared to start the cable removal process on September 6.

The CSPA argues that the lead-covered cables “have leached, are leaching, and will continue to leach lead into the waters of Lake Tahoe, and that such leaching may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health or the environment.”