Lead Telecom Cables: Battle Over Transparency in New York

What Happened?

Rick Karlin of the Times Union based in Albany, NY reported on an intriguing lawsuit over transparency on lead-sheathed telecom cables. In November, Verizon petitioned a state court to overturn a decision1 by the New York Public Service Commission that provides for disclosure of the following information to the Wall Street Journal:

  • “The total mileage and percentage of Verizon’s copper cables in New York State that are lead-sheathed;
  • The total mileage and percentage of Verizon’s copper cables in New York State by environment (aerial, underground [in conduit], buried [not in conduit], submarine, and buildings); and
  • The total mileage and percentage of Verizon’s lead-sheathed copper cable in New York State by environment.”2

Verizon argues against disclosure because the information is a trade secret that “could shed light on Verizon’s potential exposure to remediation costs, an important, and competitively relevant, financial parameter concerning its operations.”3 The court temporarily blocked the release of the information until it could consider the issue. The case is awaiting further action by the court after Verizon responded on December 14.

Why It Matters

The July 2023 WSJ investigation reported that lead-sheathed telecom cables are releasing toxic lead into water or soil based on-site sampling in six regions of the country. WSJ reported that it identified 2,000 locations with these lead cables, largely from old Army Corp of Engineers records. However, another telecom company, in an unrelated court case, reported it had as much as 66,000 miles of the aerial (essentially hung from telephone poles) or submarine (in lakes, rivers, and streams) lead-sheathed cables. 

In response to the WSJ reports, New York Governor Hochul directed the Commission to request detailed information from the telecom companies in order to better understand the scope of the issue in the state. The Commission and the Department of Environmental Conservation have the information, but it has not been made public.4

Note that EPA is investigating WSJ’s findings in response to a request by EDF and others

Our Take

We think the public should know if lead-sheathed telecom cables are strung over their front yards, their neighborhood playgrounds, or their bus stops, or if they are in the streams where they swim or fish. We understand that telecom companies consider that information to be a trade secret that the companies want to be kept confidential. In this case, the New York Public Service Commission struck a reasonable balance to help the public understand the magnitude of the issue. 

Next Steps

We will track the case and provide an update when the court’s decision is issued. 

In the meantime, we encourage the Commission to consider publicly releasing aggregated information from all the telecom companies as an important step forward.

  1. The decision was prompted by a Freedom of Information request to the Commission by Wall Street Journal. The Commission partially granted the request. See transcript of proceedings at page 5 of 33. ↩︎
  2. See Verizon’s December 14, 2023 Reply Memorandum of Law at page 11 of 18. Verizon acknowledged the risks in its October 2023 10Q filing with the Security and Exchange Commission filing. ↩︎
  3. Id. ↩︎
  4. The Department of Health found no widespread contaminations using 400 ppm based on EPA guidance. In January 2024, EPA lowered that threshold to 200 ppm for cleanup investigations. ↩︎

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