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Rep. Ryan calls on telecom companies to clean up toxic lead cables

Angelo Schembari (left), a volunteer with the Cornwall Cleanup Crew, points out to Rep. Pat Ryan (right) where an abandoned lead cable line fell along Quaker Avenue.
Jesse King
Angelo Schembari (left), a volunteer with the Cornwall Cleanup Crew, points out to Rep. Pat Ryan (right) where an abandoned lead cable line fell along Quaker Avenue.

New York Congressman Pat Ryan joined cleanup crews in Cornwall Saturday to call on telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T to disclose and clean up toxic, lead-sheathed cables across the country.

Ryan met with members of the Cornwall Cleanup Crew along a busy stretch of Quaker Avenue. Angelo Schembari, a volunteer and local arborist, says the crew has covered this particular area multiple times — it’s a frequent site of illegal dumping and litter — but their latest find is likely decades old: a fallen wire wrapped in a white, lead coating.

“The white is oxidation, and that’s how it leeches into the soil," says Schembari. “Lead does not oxidize in the air very quickly, which is the reason why [telecom companies] used it. But put it in soil or water, and it leeches very quickly."

Ryan says the telecom industry largely phased out lead-sheathed cables in the 1950s, but many of them remain hanging, abandoned. As they come down, or the lead sheathing simply falls off, Ryan worries they can contaminate communities. The CDC warns lead poisoning can be especially harmful to children, putting them at risk of slower development, brain damage, and learning/behavioral issues.

Last summer, a Wall Street Journal report identifying old lead cables by a playground in Wappingers Falls prompted officials to temporarily shut down the village’s Temple Park. A state soil analysis later found no evidence of elevated or widespread contamination in the area.

Regardless, Ryan says he’s working on legislation with Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, a fellow Democrat, to ensure that corporations like Verizon and AT&T — which ultimately bought the companies that installed the lines — are responsible for cleaning them up.

“No community, no group of citizens in this country should be out on a beautiful Saturday having to clean up the mess of a multi-billion dollar corporation, but that's what's happening," says Ryan.

Ryan estimates there are thousands of miles of lead-sheathed cables in the U.S., but officials still don’t know exactly where. In response to the Journal report last year, Governor Kathy Hochul directed state agencies like the Public Service Commission to investigate the impacts of old lead cables in the state. More than 200 companies were asked to provide a list of cable locations, but many of them, including AT&T and Verizon, have asked the PSC to keep their inventories confidential.

Cornwall Town Supervisor John Wojehowski says when he looked through the documents on the PSC website, all he found were black, heavily-redacted pages. He says it’s frustrating, because it's easy to spot lead cables hanging all over town.

“Why are they just basically junking up our community? They really should come and they should remove them," says Wojehowski. "It’s not too much to ask, except they’re fighting the governor in court right now. They’re citing all these things like trade secrets, national security, etc. — pretty much all bulls*** because they don’t want to assume the costs for the cleanup.” 

A spokesperson for USTelecom, the trade organization representing the telecom industry, says it prioritizes the health and safety of communities, adding: "We will continue to follow the science, which has not identified that lead-sheathed telecom cables are a leading cause of lead exposure or the cause of a public health issue.  And recent federal, state, and industry testing has reinforced this point. Our industry remains committed to engaging constructively with stakeholders, including policymakers, on this important matter.”

A fallen lead cable in Cornwall, New York.
Jesse King
A fallen lead cable in Cornwall, New York.

Schembari says the Cornwall Cleanup Crew ultimately decided not to remove the cable Saturday, as they’re still weighing the safest methods of disposal.

Vice President Tania Chacho says the organization, which lists more than 400 total volunteers on Facebook, hopes to expand into a larger non-profit serving all of the Hudson Valley. She says the job is never really done.

“It can be discouraging, sometimes, and overwhelming to see what we find, but these are the people that I want to be out with," says Chacho. "These are the people that care, and the ones that are making a difference."

The Cornwall Cleanup Crew meets every Sunday morning at the CVS parking lot on Quaker Avenue.

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."