New Orleans Mi companera is a “lead head,” as she self-describes herself and the global network of activists, organizers, scientists, and more who are constantly raising the alarms about the dangers of lead everywhere. For a while, there has been a box of lead-testing kits on the stairsteps that I have to navigate several times a day. Anti-leaders have slept on the floor of our living room. Drinking from what I would call regular cups or eating off such plates, rather than only using glass, is a radical and reckless act in our house, as is drinking the city’s water. The children learned this at their mother’s knee, literally, and fully adapted to her system, whether through conviction or simply to “go along to get along” over the decades. I’m past help, she says, but I know – and believe – by heart the mantra that any and all contact with lead is unsafe and could be permanently damaging, especially to the young and the old.
All of which means that reports by the Wall Street Journal questioning the impact of the telephone cables encased in lead on the banks of the Mississippi River, hardly three blocks from our house, or at fishing spots in New Iberia have the impact of a three-alarm fire in our home. It’s “told you so” on constant rewind around here, and she’s right that it should be.
The successor companies to the old Bell telephone systems, like AT&T and Verizon, have known about this problem for decades, of course, like the way cigarette companies knew smoking caused cancer and oil companies knew fossil fuels would boil the planet. Their responses to the report were boringly predictable. They have made sure their workers were safe by OSHA standards, they claim. They have operated within federal guidelines, they claim. They didn’t change out the lead-covered toxic cables because they were afraid that doing so would cause even more damage. Think about that excuse for a minute. We’ve learned to remove asbestos safely. We’ve learned to replace the soil in playgrounds and schoolyards safely, but these giant, multi-billion telecommunications conglomerates want to claim that they could not figure out how to replace and change out the cables safely. Yeah, right? What they are really saying is that they couldn’t figure out a way to do it cheaply and decided to wait until they were made to do it.
In a classic case of double edges of capitalism, the vaunted forces of the market have reacted to the news and their lame excuses by punishing their stock price and as well as that of their buddies.
AT&T’s shares have shed 13% since the first report ran on July 9, putting the new Ma Bell’s market value below the $100 billion mark for the first time since 2006, according to FactSet. Verizon’s shares have slid 12% over the same time. Smaller carriers Frontier Communications and Lumen have seen their shares plunge 34% and 22%, respectively, on worries about their larger reliance on wire line services. Wireless-tower operators American Tower, Crown Castle, and SBA Communications have seen their shares shed 5% to 6% over the same period on worries that the problem eventually could crimp capital expenditures by AT&T and Verizon.
One analyst, “who has covered the industry for more than 20 years, wrote … that ‘we had never previously encountered the topic of lead in telecom networks.’” These are folks who made the big bucks and even larger bonuses. How could they have allowed themselves to be so gaslighted by the companies, or did they just not understand that over the last fifty years environmental issues have become slightly important?
We could have saved him a lot of money and embarrassment if he had been in the neighborhood and visited my house over the last three or four decades! I know someone intimately who could have told them a thing or two. Not that they would have listened. Not that they would have done the right thing and spent the money. Now, better late than never, next will come the regulators, the politicians, and of course the lawyers.