Environmental Groups Call on U.S. EPA to Investigate Potential Harms of Lead Telecom Cables

Research reveals nation-wide risk of lead exposure to children, drinking water

July 17, 2023
Paige Baker, (919) 272-2168, pabaker@edf.org

(Washington, DC July 17, 2023) Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Below the Blue, and Clean Water Action submitted a letter to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan today, calling on the agency to investigate the uncontrolled release of lead by more than 2,000 lead-sheathed telecom cables into water or surface soil across the nation. More than 300 of these cables are posing a threat to community drinking water sources. 

“EPA must prioritize the immediate removal of lead-sheathed cables accessible to children or strung overhead between telephone poles,” said Tom Neltner, senior director for safer chemicals at EDF. “These cables pose the greatest exposure risk to lead, and they can be easily fixed. For the underwater cables, EPA should assess the risk, prioritizing those in sources of water protected for drinking.” 

In an investigative series published last week, the Wall Street Journal  brought to national attention the existence of abandoned lead cables that are present across the country. It was revealed that many of these abandoned cables run through or under rivers, streams, and lakes that serve as sources of drinking water for communities – as well as through neighborhoods, playgrounds, and greenways where children may be exposed to them. 

Lead is particularly harmful to children; exposure to the metal can result in permanent neurological damage. Just last week, EPA made clear that “there is no safe level of lead” and “even low levels are detrimental to children’s health.” 

Test results on soil, water samples  

Funded by EDF, Marine Taxonomic Services, Ltd. (MTS) accompanied the Journal’s reporters on site visits to collect samples and help locate lead cables in the field. EDF has made the MTS report on its work, including photos, available to the public on EDF’s website

The results of lab tests of soil and water samples varied – from no detectable lead to an astounding lead level of 38,000 parts per billion from a single sample of water from Lake Tahoe. As the risk from these cables is unclear, EDF, Below the Blue, and Clean Water Action call on EPA to determine the potential risk to public health that the cables may pose. 

These cables, which were installed between the 1880s and 1960s, consist of lead pipes with copper wires inside and asphalt coating on the outside. Many were abandoned in place when they failed or became unnecessary, but when deserted, the open ends of those bundles were exposed—leaving the lead open to soil and water. Without EPA intervention, we expect that the risk posed by the cables will increase as they deteriorate further and release lead into the environment. 

"We have personally visited over 300 sites with lead-sheathed cables in communities across America,” said Seth Jones, co-founder of Below the Blue and President of MTS. “Research suggests that there are potentially thousands of other abandoned cables across the country. Given the number of cables identified across nine states, this is not a situation that can be addressed locally. We all need to know how big a problem this truly is for our country." 

Lynn Thorp, national campaigns director at Clean Water Action, reviewed the findings and joined the call for EPA action. She said, “With communities nationwide grappling with the legacy of lead service lines in drinking water systems, it’s imperative that EPA act expeditiously to address these uncontrolled risks to drinking water sources and to prevent unnecessary additional lead exposures from any source.” 

About the Lead Cable Investigation 

The Wall Street Journal  reached out to EDF to learn more about the risk of lead cables in lakes, rivers, and streams around the country. EDF learned of Below the Blue and talked with its cofounders, who also work at Marine Taxonomic Services, Ltd. (MTS). EDF agreed to provide guidance, assistance, and funding to MTS to help identify cables and conduct sampling. EDF’s goal was to understand the extent to which lead-sheathed cables pose a public health risk, especially to drinking water sources, that may need to be addressed. Consistent with that goal, EDF provided guidance and technical assistance to MTS and the Wall Street Journal  when questions about lead arose. 

The Wall Street Journal  identified locations to investigate based on information collected from permitting data acquired through public-records request combined with a machine-learning algorithm of Google Street view images – and in many places where its reporters and MTS looked, they found lead cables. MTS collected the water, soil, sediment, and metal samples, and the Wall Street Journal  selected the laboratories and paid for the analyses. 

About the Organizations 

Below the Blue is a community-based, nonprofit organization based in Lake Tahoe. Its goal is to remove foreign debris from bodies of water, educate the public about pollution, and collect data that will help facilitate policy change and enforcement. It has been focused on lead-sheathed cables for more than five years. It works closely with a team of environmental lawyers, local agencies, and residents to help guide their work. Its co-founders are employed by MTS. 

Clean Water Action is a national nonprofit organization founded in 1972. It works at the national, state, and local levels to improve drinking water quality and protect drinking water sources, to reduce water pollution and toxic exposures, and to curb climate change and advance clean energy. 

One of the world’s leading international nonprofit organizations, Environmental Defense Fund (edf.org) creates transformational solutions to the most serious environmental problems. To do so, EDF links science, economics, law, and innovative private-sector partnerships. With more than 3 million members and offices in the United States, China, Mexico, Indonesia and the European Union, EDF’s scientists, economists, attorneys and policy experts are working in 28 countries to turn our solutions into action. Connect with us on Twitter @EnvDefenseFund.