Pac Bell to Pay $1.5M to Remove Lead-Leaking Telephone Cables from Lake Tahoe

AT&T's Pac Bell will pay up to $1.5 million in a settlement to remove eight miles of telephone cables from Lake Tahoe, the Associated Press reported.

Pac Bell agreed to place the $1.5 million in an account to protect it from overruns, despite the estimated cost of cable removal being from $275,000 to $550,000. The agreement was signed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremy Peterson in Sacramento on November 4 in a lawsuit filed by the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance in January.

The lawsuit said the telephone cables sitting at the bottom of the lake have over 65 tons of toxic lead polluting the water, the AP reported. They were replaced with fiber optic cables during the 1980s and abandoned in the lake, subsequently violating state water quality protections. Pac Bell knew the cables would eventually leak, according to the lawsuit.

Under the U.S. Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the cables are considered solid waste as they contain over three pounds of lead per foot, the lawsuit said. The lawsuit said lead can lead to cancer and reproductive toxicity.

"All of the cables are damaged and discharging lead into Lake Tahoe," the lawsuit said.

The subsidiary agreement with the alliance states "the parties agree that defendant makes no admission of liability or of any other issue of law ... whatsoever regarding the claims made by plaintiff."

Divers of Below the Blue, a non-profit group, found the cables while removing foreign debris from the lake, which is 1,644 feet deep.

"As professional divers, we're all too familiar with the volume of dumping that goes on in Lake Tahoe, but even we were shocked when we came upon these cables and saw how old they looked, and how far they stretched across the Lake," said Monique Rydel Fortner.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Lake Tahoe, Telephone Cables, Pollution, Settlement
This photo taken October 20, 2021, shows Emerald Bay's mouth to Lake Tahoe, where submerged telephone cables were abandoned decades ago. AT&T's Pac Bell subsidiary recently settled a lawsuit filed by the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance by agreeing to remove eight miles of cable that is leaking toxic lead into the alpine lake on the California-Nevada line. Scott Sonner/AP Photo

One cable stretches from the southwestern shore of the lake at Baldwin Beach to the west shore at Rubicon Bay. The other runs past the mouth of Emerald Bay.

The company must obtain all necessary permits, and if permitting requirements push costs above $1.5 million, the sides will need to come together to reassess and go back to litigating if they can't then agree, it said.

The lawsuit said the company was violating both the federal RCRA and the California Health and Safety Code, subject to civil penalties of up to $2,500 a day dating to 2020 and up to $2,500 a day "until Pac Bell stops releasing lead into the waters of Lake Tahoe."

The Klamath Environmental Law Center based in Eureka, California, sent notice of the alleged violations in August 2020 to Pacific Bell Telephone Co., the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California regulators, El Dorado County, Placer County and local utilities providing services in the area, including Sierra Pacific Power Co./NV Energy and Liberty Utilities.

The subsequent lawsuit cited alleged violations under both RCRA and protections established under Proposition 65 California voters approved in 1986. It ordered California's governor to establish a list of cancer-causing and other chemicals, put the burden on businesses to provide clear warnings about the dangers of exposure to them and prohibited their discharge into sources of drinking water, including Lake Tahoe.

David Roe, a longtime lawyer for the Environmental Defense Fund who was the principal author of Proposition 65, said the alliance's legal team deserved credit for devising a strategy that utilized a combination of the two laws to protect the public.

"Most businesses think Proposition 65 requires only warnings about toxic chemicals, but it has strong extra teeth to protect the waters we drink from," Roe said. "Local agencies with responsibilities to protect those waters would do well to study this innovative legal approach."

AT&T, California, Settlement, Lake Tahoe, Pollution
Divers from Below the Blue, a non-profit group, discovered the cables while removing foreign debris from Lake Tahoe, which holds enough water to cover the entire state of California over 14 inches deep. In this photo, kids enjoy a sunny day at Fallen Leaf Lake, located adjacent to Lake Tahoe near Emerald Bay, on August 9, 2020, in South Lake Tahoe, California. George Rose/Getty Images