By Megan Michelson
It’s been 10 years since scuba divers Seth Jones and Monique Rydel-Fortner first spotted the abandoned cables in the depths of Lake Tahoe while diving in Emerald Bay. Jones, founder of Below the Blue, a nonprofit aimed at removing foreign debris from bodies of water, took a piece of the cable — a copper wire coated in lead — to be examined and he determined that it was likely leaching lead into the lake, possibly contaminating a vital water source.
A lawsuit settlement from last fall called for the immediate removal of the cables, yet as of press time, the cables remain in the lake.
In all, Jones and Rydel-Fortner found six telecommunications cables under Lake Tahoe, totaling nearly eight miles in length and weighing some 63 tons, stretching from Baldwin Beach to Rubicon Bay along the West Shore. The oldest of the cables, discovered in Emerald Bay, dates to 1929 and was installed by Pacific Bell, a subsidiary that’s now owned by AT&T. (Pac Bell switched to fiber optic phone cables three decades ago, but before that, the company used lead-sheathed transmission wires.) Lead is a toxic heavy metal known to cause cancer and reproductive toxicity.
“Tests done in a laboratory setting show that these cables are leaching lead,” Jones said. “That was really all that was needed to push for the removal of these cables in court.”
AT&T has taken responsibility for the cables, but the company denies that the wires are a source of pollution. “We hired an expert firm to collect water samples close to and far from the cables,” Jim Kimberly, director of corporate communications for AT&T, wrote in a statement to Moonshine Ink. “The sampling did not detect any release of lead into Lake Tahoe.” When asked, AT&T would not supply data from that study.
Jones denies those findings. “AT&T has conducted studies in the water that show no lead,” Jones said. “But you could sample water in the middle of the Mississippi River and show that it’s clean water. There are various ways to do that.”
Years after discovering the cables, Jones connected with the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, a nonprofit that oversees the implementation of environmental regulations on water quality, and in January 2021, the alliance brought a lawsuit against AT&T under California’s Proposition 65, which requires businesses to provide warnings to Californians about exposure to chemicals that could impact human health. Moonshine Ink covered the lawsuit in The Cables Leaking Lead in Lake Tahoe, published in November 2020.
The settlement agreement filed last November in a Sacramento federal court required AT&T to remove the cables, including obtaining the necessary local, state, and federal permits needed for extraction. The settlement stated that the cables contain lead.
The settlement called for the removal of the cables as soon as possible, noting that the required permits should be received within six months of the court filing date. The agreement called for AT&T to remove the cables from Lake Tahoe and transport them to an off-site disposal or a cable recycler within 90 days following the necessary permit acquisition. According to the settlement, if the removal process will cost more than $1.5 million — most estimates put it considerably lower than that, less than $550,000 — then another agreement will need to be made.
Nine months have elapsed since the court documents were filed. Those deadlines for removal have passed, yet the cables remain in the lake. What is taking so long? “We must obtain permits from numerous regulatory agencies, and each has its own set of requirements,” said Kimberly, the AT&T spokesperson. “We are working diligently to obtain the necessary permits so that we can remove these cables. The ultimate timing and costs will depend on actions by regulatory agencies.”
Jones estimated that, based on permitting and other logistics, the cables may not come out until next year, likely the summer or fall of 2023. He also added that the physical removal of the cables should take approximately a week in total. “AT&T has initiated the process, but they’ve bogged it down. Nothing is moving forward at all,” Jones said. “They’re not doing what they have to do to make this happen this year.”
The League to Save Lake Tahoe was not involved in the lawsuit against AT&T, but the environmental nonprofit organization is now pushing for the prompt removal of the cables. “I trust that AT&T has every intention to remove these cables,” said Jesse Patterson, chief strategy officer for the League to Save Lake Tahoe. “I have not seen any movement so far, but getting things done in Tahoe takes time. These cables need to come out, and we’re going to be persistent until they do. If this keeps dragging on until next year, we’ll have to take a different approach.”
Bill Verick, attorney for the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, told Moonshine Ink that this is standard procedure, and the lengthy timeline is to be expected. “I think it’s just taking time,” Verick said. “I don’t have any evidence that AT&T is dragging their feet. They’re moving at a glacial pace because that’s what a giant bureaucracy does.”
Verick said that data collected shows that the cables are leaching lead but not at an alarming rate. “We’re not going to see fish turn belly up with lead poisoning because it’s diluting into a large body of water, but it is affecting the environment,” Verick said.
According to an email obtained by Moonshine Ink, consultants hired by AT&T to remove the cables met with staff of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, a regional board operating under the California Environmental Protection Agency, in March 2022 to discuss the removal of the cables. In the meeting, they determined the need for before and after photos from the removal sites and laid out the process for removing the cables, which included cutting the cables above the high-water mark and pulling them onto a barge in sections. AT&T also has to seek permitting from the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and seek approval from local Native American tribes and other agencies.
“This is Lake Tahoe, which is a very big deal for California, and rightly so,” Verick added. “So, they’re being careful, which they should.”