AT&T Backtracks on Removing Lead Cables Amid Legal Fight

Two abandoned cables containing lead lie at the bottom of Lake Tahoe, have been lying there for decades, and will continue to lie there, likely until a contentious lawsuit that pits a publicly traded corporation against a group of environmental activists is resolved in court.

AT&T had plans in place to remove the cables last fall. But after a Wall Street Journal investigation that was published in the summer dug into the company’s legacy of lead-clad infrastructure across the country, AT&T’s stocks fell to record lows and the company swiftly reversed course, halting all efforts to remove the cables. Now, the company is arguing in court that the Lake Tahoe cables should remain in place until more lead testing can be done.      

One cable runs across the mouth of Emerald Bay, where thousands of boats crisscross all summer long. The second traverses the West Shore, running north across Rubicon Bay. In each cable, a core of copper strands is encased in a quarter inch-thick jacket of lead, which is in turn wrapped by a layer of steel rods. Every foot of cable contains more than 3 pounds of lead, adding up to more than 68 tons of lead sitting at the bottom of Lake Tahoe, according to court documents filed in the civil suit case.

The cables belong to AT&T. They are from a bygone era, when telephone lines were making their first reaches across the country. The Emerald Bay cable was installed as early as 1928, according to court documents. That was the same year the widowed heiress Lora Josephine Knight built Vikingsholm, the summer estate situated on the shore of Emerald Bay. Over time, the cables have been worn and damaged, and in some places, exposing frayed edges of lead.

The cables were abandoned decades ago, no longer in use, eclipsed by Tahoe’s deep water and forgotten until 2012, when two divers named Seth Jones and Monique Rydel-Fortner found them. Soon after the discovery, the divers started a nonprofit called Below the Blue to advocate for their removal. In 2021, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, a nonprofit consisting of environmental activists and fishing enthusiasts, filed a civil suit against AT&T, asking the court system to hold the publicly traded corporation accountable for the lead cables it abandoned and ultimately to remove them from Lake Tahoe.

AT&T never admitted to any wrongdoing, but in an effort to avoid litigation, the company originally said that it would pull out both cables up to a cost of $1.5 million, and at that point there was no shortage of effort to have the cables taken out of Lake Tahoe. Moonshine reported on this decision November 2022 in the article, Why is it Taking so Long for AT&T to Remove the Abandoned Cables from Under Lake Tahoe? Up until last July, Jesse Patterson, chief strategy officer at the League to Save Lake Tahoe, was convinced that AT&T was on a path to extract the cables. The League’s mission is to advocate for the protection of Lake Tahoe’s environment, and the nonprofit had been following the issue closely since the lawsuit’s inception.

Prior to the Journal’s reporting, AT&T had every intention to remove the cables in Lake Tahoe consistent with the terms of the settlement. But the landscape has changed dramatically.”

~ from a letter by AT&T lawyers, July 2023

AT&T sought approval from seven different government agencies that needed to sign off on the removal. The U.S. Forest Service was the last to sign, on April 28, 2023, clearing the way for the project to begin. Permitting with California State Parks was nearly in place, too, save for a scheduling issue that bumped the work into the fall of 2023, after the busy summer season, when Lake Tahoe’s surface would be calm again. Everything appeared to be lining up to begin hauling the cables out of the lake in September.

“Everything that could be done to get them out had been done, and we were just waiting for the green light,” Patterson says.

But then, in the middle of July, a Wall Street Journal investigation was published, linking AT&T and other telecom giants to abandoned, toxic lead cables across the country. The two Lake Tahoe cables were a featured part of the story.

“America is wrapped in miles of toxic lead cables,” one Wall Street Journal headline reads. The story reports that most of the cables were installed between the late 1800s and the 1960s and that, “for many years, telecom companies have known about the lead-covered cables and the potential risks of exposure to their workers, according to documents and interviews with former employees.”

The story continues to assert that the companies “were also aware that lead was potentially leaching into the environment, but haven’t meaningfully acted on potential health risks to the surrounding communities or made efforts to monitor the cables.”

Independent testing cited by the Wall Street Journal in their story showed that “lead in a Lake Tahoe water sample was 2,533 times the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] limit for drinking water.”

HOW MUCH LEAD IS LEAKING into Lake Tahoe? The answer is murky. And that’s one of the reasons why lawyers are taking this case back to court. Photo by Ted Coakley III/Moonshine Ink

After the WSJ investigation was published, AT&T shares dropped to their lowest levels in three decades, Reuters reported. A few days later, AT&T halted all of its efforts to remove the cables, stating in court that they should remain in Lake Tahoe “to permit further analysis” and “allow the safety of these cables to be litigated.”

In the aftermath of the investigation, AT&T decided to litigate the case levied by California Sportfishing after all.

“Prior to the Journal’s reporting, AT&T had every intention to remove the cables in Lake Tahoe consistent with the terms of the settlement,” states a letter drafted by lawyers representing AT&T last July. “But the landscape has changed dramatically.”

Another summer on the horizon, and now Lake Tahoe hangs in the balance of a nationwide investigation into corporate responsibility and a lawsuit that’s issued subpoenas to retrieve documents and communications from nearly everyone involved in the removal effort.

Meanwhile, the cables are still in the water.

That lead is leaving the cable and entering the sandy bottom and the waters of Lake Tahoe. I’m absolutely certain of that. [AT&T] would have to disprove Einstein in order to prove otherwise. I’m not giving you my opinion. I’m giving you a second law of thermodynamics.”

~ Kirk Boyd, California Sportfishing lawyer

In reporting this story, Moonshine Ink read dozens of court documents to untangle the convoluted twists and turns the lawsuit has taken since July.

California Sportfishing, the plaintiff in the case, calls on the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, or Prop 65, to enforce the removal of both lead cables. Kirk Boyd, an Olympic Valley-based lawyer for California Sportfishing, says the court’s decision will hinge on Prop 65. California voters passed Prop 65 to protect drinking water sources from toxic substances that cause health defects and cancer. Lake Tahoe is a source of drinking water.

The plaintiffs need to prove that lead from the cables is discharging into the lake to win the case, Boyd says. And he said that divers will be doing more testing this spring to gather samples of water and sediment near the cables to provide evidence to the court.

“I’m expecting that [the testing results] will show unequivocally that the discharge is occurring,” Boyd said. “That lead is leaving the cable and entering the sandy bottom and the waters of Lake Tahoe. I’m absolutely certain of that. [AT&T] would have to disprove Einstein in order to prove otherwise. I’m not giving you my opinion. I’m giving you a second law of thermodynamics.”

In its defense, AT&T’s lawyers are focused on whether the cables pose any risk or danger to people who are swimming and recreating in Lake Tahoe. They point to the volume of water in Lake Tahoe, saying that if the cables are leaching lead, trace levels in such a huge body of water do not pose a risk to people.

“We have always maintained that lead-clad telecommunications cables in Lake Tahoe pose no danger to those who work and play in its waters,” said Jim Kimberly, spokesperson for AT&T, in an email to Moonshine Ink. “In 2021, we agreed to remove them simply to avoid protracted litigation. The cables will now be maintained in place to preserve evidence, permit further analysis by qualified and independent interested parties, and allow the safety of these cables to be analyzed through objective scientific evidence rather than sensationalized media coverage.”

AT&T’s lawyers are also pointing to significant discrepancies in the results of lead testing. Several different tests have been conducted in an attempt to prove whether lead is leaching from the cables and how much. The results from each test are wildly different.

What’s more, AT&T points out that the divers who worked with the Wall Street Journal for their testing are the same divers — Jones and Rydel-Fortner of Below the Blue — who found the cables more than a decade ago and brought that information to California Sportfishing, prompting the lawsuit.

“We hired independent experts to conduct scientifically valid environmental tests at locations identified by the Wall Street Journal, including Lake Tahoe,” Kimberly said. “We believe that the Journal’s sampling was not performed by disinterested, objective experts, but by individuals with clear agendas and conflicts of interest. Some are even the same individuals who prompted the plaintiff to file the Lake Tahoe lawsuit against AT&T. We have repeatedly asked the Journal to share its full data, methodology, sampling, and testing results so that we can understand how they reached their conclusions, but they have refused.”

Now, Below the Blue is entangled in the legal dispute. They are a third-party witness in the civil suit and a court-ordered subpoena requires Below the Blue to hand over all of its communications and documentation about water quality testing of the lead cables.

“Unfortunately, AT&T has embroiled Below the Blue in that litigation through subpoenas, and we are not in a position to comment further at this time,” Jones stated in an email to Moonshine Ink.

Patterson, at the League to Save Lake Tahoe, says that lead testing is finicky and results can be vastly different depending on the method of the test. The slightest contamination of an instrument used to survey or monitor the test could throw off the results, too, he said.

At the outset of the civil suit, California Sportfishing cited what’s become known as “the kiddie swimming pool” test, where a severed portion of the cables was removed, taken out of Lake Tahoe and placed in a kid’s-sized inflatable swimming pool full of water. Water samples were taken out of the kid’s pool after 24 hours and sent to a lab, showing “astoundingly high levels of lead in the water,” according to a court document filed by AT&T’s lawyers on Aug. 17.

AT&T’s testing was performed in an in situ format by third-party environmental consultants that took samples of water and soil at various points near the cables in Lake Tahoe. The most recent of those tests, dated Aug. 24, 2023, showed that lead levels were “very low” and “indistinguishable” from background levels of lead found generally in freshwater.

The test cited by the Wall Street Journal has not been released to the court. And yet one more test, conducted by the plaintiffs in the case, will be underway this spring, Boyd says.

STILL THERE: Despite public outcry, the fate of two lead cables spanning some 8 miles underwater in Lake Tahoe remains stuck in litigation. Photo by Ted Coakley III/Moonshine Ink

Since the WSJ investigation, the League to Save Lake Tahoe has requested the lead studies done by all parties — including the Journal’s, which was denied. Patterson says none of the tests provide a satisfactory result. Their results are predictable, given the interests of their respective parties. Patterson said the league had been making moves to conduct its own test before last summer. They’d already done a visual survey to assess the condition of the cables. But the nonprofit paused on its testing efforts, thinking the cables were going to be removed, anyway. And then the litigation doubled down. Now, Patterson says he doesn’t think the cables will be taken out until the lawyers resolve the case in court.

Legal issues aside, the bottom line is that the cables are 8 miles of trash lying at the bottom of Lake Tahoe. And they need to be gone, Patterson said.

“It’s 8-plus miles of cables that are just garbage,” Patterson says. “They serve no function or utility whatsoever. Lake Tahoe is too important, too special to have 8 miles of trash at the bottom of it.”

Since the lawsuit, the League to Save Lake Tahoe has remained invested in the effort to remove the cables. Patterson and his colleagues have talked to all the government agency partners, to AT&T, to the Wall Street Journal, to lawyers on both sides. The league was also in communication with other agencies about potential enforcement actions — Lake Tahoe is one of the most protected bodies of water in the United States — but then subpoenas were issued. “So those doors were all slammed shut and now everything is stuck in litigation,” Patterson says.

“If there is a way to get those things out sooner, we are on board. But it’s hard for me to see a path forward without AT&T. They own them. They would have to allow removal,” Patterson says. “We have been told in numerous ways, directly from the CEO and others, what [Moonshine Ink] heard. They are not touching the cables until litigation is resolved. Which is unfortunate.”

But there is another push at play to get those cables out of Lake Tahoe. A petition organized by residents in Rubicon Bay for removal has already received hundreds of signatures. 

Lake Tahoe is too important, too special to have 8 miles of trash at the bottom of it.” 

~ Jesse Patterson, League to Save Lake Tahoe

Evan Dreyer’s family has had a lakefront house in Rubicon Bay for decades. As he told Moonshine Ink in 2021, he remembers seeing Jones and Rydel-Fortner in the water, just beyond his pier, when they were inspecting the lead cables. Dreyer and his neighbors in Rubicon Bay have been following the court case closely and many of them sent letters to AT&T at the outset. Support for the removal of the cables is universal, he says, among Rubicon Bay homeowners and other people in the Tahoe community that he’s spoken with.

Dreyer and his neighbors are not involved in the ongoing litigation. But they do have a vested interest in getting those lead cables out of Lake Tahoe. Now, they want to pick up where AT&T fell off.

“Anytime I look at the lake or swim in the lake, it’s like, this is unequivocally the right thing to do,” Dreyer said. “Let’s get this thing out.”

That’s why Tahoe Lead organized over last winter. The group has a website with the petition requesting the cables’ removal. Dreyer is recruiting the same contractors that AT&T was working with. He wants to speak with government agencies to take over the permitting. And then he hopes to raise somewhere between $2 million to $3 million for the project, and — finally — in the spring of 2025, lift the cables out of the water.

“Let’s have an effort that is singularly minded to get the lead out,” Dreyer said.

~ Julie Brown Davis is a journalist and writer from Lake Tahoe’s West Shore.