From the Office of U.S. Senator Ben Ray Luján:
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) sent letters to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) based on recent media reports on the potential public health threat of lead-sheathed telecommunications cables. The 18-month long investigation by the Wall Street Journal found that a nationwide network of lead-sheathed cables—remnants of legacy telecom networks—are potentially leaching dangerous levels of toxic lead into water and soil in hundreds of locations across the U.S.
In their letters, the Senators request information as to whether the FCC and the EPA had any knowledge of the lead cables, whether any telecom companies misrepresented the extent of lead-use or known risks of lead-sheathed cables, and what authorities the FCC and EPA currently possess to test, mitigate, or require telecom companies to remove or replace lead-sheathed cables.
“There is no safe level of lead exposure and children are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead toxicity. For that reason, we seek additional information from state and federal regulators to understand the full scope of this source of lead toxicity in soil and drinking water,” wrote the Senators to the FCC. “While we appreciate that the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) reached out to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Journal’s reporting raises serious questions as to the current locations of lead-lined cables and which locations are at elevated of risk of harming communities, particularly children at elevated long-term risk of harm from due to lead exposure.”
“We strongly urge the EPA to investigate and ascertain the scope of this problem and move swiftly to hold any potentially responsible parties accountable and ensure they engage any needed remediation activities to mitigate harms affecting communities, families and children, current and former employees and contractors, and ecosystems that were exposed to lead-sheathed telecommunications cables,” wrote the Senators to the EPA.
Both letters were signed by U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Full text of the letter to the FCC is available HERE and below:
We write with great concern regarding reports of lead-lined telecommunications cables throughout the United States. A series of articles from the Wall Street Journal revealed a network of over 2,000 lead-covered cables left unaddressed by the companies that inherited the Ma Bell communications network. The reporting also found that local, state, and federal regulators were not previously aware of the potential public health threats of these cables.
There is no safe level of lead exposure and children are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead toxicity. For that reason, we seek additional information from state and federal regulators to understand the full scope of this source of lead toxicity in soil and drinking water. While we appreciate that the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) reached out to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Journal’s reporting raises serious questions as to the current locations of lead-lined cables and which locations are at elevated of risk of harming communities, particularly children at elevated long-term risk of harm from due to lead exposure. In an interview with former AT&T executive Brad Allenby, Mr. Allenby noted that “lead was a ubiquitous material in telecom.” Moreover, evidence shows that the telecom companies knew of the risk of lead exposure to their employees. As recently as 2013, OSHA conducted an investigation into CenturyLink (a descendant of Ma Bell) and issued nine lead-related citations.
The Journal’s 18-month investigation found records of more than 2,000 lead-sheathed cables throughout the United States. These cables are strung on poles, buried underground, and run underwater in source drinking water. Investigative reporters and environmental quality experts visited approximately 300 cable sites, collected 200 samples and conducted lead testing on 130. The independent testing commissioned by the Journal found elevated levels of lead in water and sediment, severely exceeding the EPA’s recommended threshold. The newspaper used isotopic analysis and rigorous control sampling to confirm that the detected lead contamination came from nearby telecommunications cables.
Given the serious danger to public health and the lack of information regarding the extent of the public health threat, we seek records and answers to the following questions:
- Please provide any and all records documenting the following:
- Instances in which Bell Telecommunications Company, AT&T or any corporate successor requested regulatory approval from the Commission to deploy telecommunications equipment that they indicated contained significant amounts of lead. This includes records dating back to the Commission’s inception in 1934.
- Information as to the locations where the Bell Telecommunications Company, AT&T or any corporate successor requested regulatory approval from the Commission to deploy equipment that they indicated contained lead? Please provide maps and detailed location information.
- Prior to the Wall Street Journal reporting, did the FCC have specific knowledge of the network of lead-sheathed cables throughout the U.S.?
- If yes, did the FCC have knowledge of the potential public health risks caused by lead contamination from the cables?
- Did the FCC ever receive a disclosure from a whistleblower (as defined in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) regarding the potential public health threats of lead-lined telecommunications cables?
- Has the Bell Telephone Company or its corporate descendants ever misrepresented to the Commission the extent of lead use or the known risk of lead-sheathed cables?
- Is the FCC aware of any lead remediation efforts, specifically related to lead-sheathed cables, undertaken by the telecommunications industry?
- How is the Commission coordinating with federal health and environmental safety agencies to respond to the issues raised in the Wall Street Journal reporting?
- What authorities does the Commission possess under the Communications Act to test, mitigate, and/or replace lead-sheathed cables or require that the corporations that acquired these assets do so?
- Do the Commission’s discontinuance rules requires telecommunications companies to identify any potential environmental or public health hazards resulting from abandoned network infrastructure?
- If no, does the Commission have the authority to issue a rule requiring companies to provide such information?
Thank you for attention to this matter, we look forward to a prompt response.
Full text of the letter to the EPA is available HERE and below:
We have serious concerns regarding potential lead contamination and exposure caused by an expansive network of lead-sheathed telecommunications cables throughout the country. We appreciate the work that the Biden Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have undertaken to reduce—with a goal of ultimately eliminating—lead exposure for children, families, and workers, and believe that a full understanding of the scope of possible lead exposure from these cables is critical to achieving this goal. We strongly urge the EPA to investigate and ascertain the scope of this problem and move swiftly to hold any potentially responsible parties accountable and ensure they engage any needed remediation activities to mitigate harms affecting communities, families and children, current and former employees and contractors, and ecosystems that were exposed to lead-sheathed telecommunications cables.
As you know, “EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree that there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood.” Under President Biden’s leadership, Congress and the Administration have worked together to make historic investments in replacing lead pipes and reducing other potential sources of contamination. Last month, the EPA proposed updates to its lead paint and dust abatement standards to protect children, vulnerable groups, and all communities, and better align its standards with current abatement capabilities. However, even as the federal government works to reduce lead contamination, recent reporting from The Wall Street Journal indicates that lead-sheathed cables may be a significant unaddressed source of exposure. We appreciate that EPA has conducted its own testing at sites in West Orange, New Jersey and Coal Center, Pennsylvania and is working with state agencies in New York to review additional samples. While EPA has stated that initial testing results at the West Orange site do not pose an immediate health risk, it also acknowledged that some samples did have lead concentrations above EPA’s threshold of 400 parts per million. We believe that these results warrant continued monitoring and further investigation to fully ascertain the scope of this issue. We also understand EPA requested additional information from telecommunications companies. We urge EPA to conduct a full assessment of the risks that these cables pose to all communities in which they are present and any risks to the public, workers, and the environment.
The Wall Street Journal’s investigation found that these cables are the likely source of elevated lead levels in soil and water samples that significantly exceed EPA guidelines, from West Orange, New Jersey, to Lake Tahoe, California. Lead contamination at sites identified in the investigation, as well as at any unreported locations, could endanger drinking water and areas around schools, playgrounds, and other locations that may pose a high risk of exposure for children. In total, the Journal identified over 300 underwater cables in source water protection areas and aerial cables running alongside over 100 schools that serve approximately 48,000 students. Additionally, reporting indicates that telecommunications companies may have had knowledge of the risks associated with lead-sheathed cables for decades, including health risks to workers and the environment.
These reports raise serious questions about the public health risks associated with deteriorating lead-sheathed cables, along with risks to workers who came in contact with these cables, and warrant further examination at the federal level to fully assess these risks. We urge EPA to work with other federal agencies, state and local governments, organized labor and affected workers, civil society and public health advocates and researchers, environmental experts, the telecommunications industry, and other stakeholders to quickly gather information to determine the scope of this issue and undertake swift and aggressive remediation efforts as needed. Further, EPA should utilize existing authorities under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, RCRA, Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERLCLA) and other landmark environmental laws to conduct its own investigation and testing at sites identified by The Wall Street Journal, as well as other high-risk locations across the country. EPA should also work closely with the Federal Communications Commission as it uses its jurisdiction over telecommunications service providers and its authority under the Communications Act to preserve and promote the public interest, including safeguarding the environment and protecting public health and safety.
In addition to taking the above actions, we request answers in writing to the following questions by September 29, 2023:
- Was EPA aware of potential lead contamination and exposure risks posed by lead-sheathed cables prior to The Wall Street Journal’s reporting?
- Has EPA previously conducted any internal review of the exposure risk from lead-sheathed cables? Please provide the results of any internal reviews.
- Has EPA previously conducted any water, soil, or sediment testing in the vicinity of lead-sheathed cables? Please provide any specific locations and testing results.
- Will EPA commit to a full investigation of possible contamination caused by lead-sheathed cables, and utilize the full scope of its authority to ensure the remediation of contaminated sites by potentially responsible parties?
- Will EPA commit to working closely with the FCC as the Commission uses its authority under the Communications Act to address the existence of lead-sheathed telecommunications cables?
- What additional resources or authorities, if any, does EPA require to fully assess, mitigate, and remediate lead exposure risks caused by lead-sheathed cables?
- Will EPA commit to keeping our offices fully informed regarding this investigation, findings, remediation efforts, and enforcement actions?
We appreciate your consideration, and we respectfully request a response no later than September 29, 2023. We look forward to continuing our work together to protect communities across the U.S.