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The Consequences of Hiring Unqualified Workers to Remove Asbestos

According to a November 19 press release issued by The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia man was recently sentenced to three and a half years in prison for knowingly exposing day laborers to asbestos.

Gene Cornell Smith knew that the warehouse building he had purchased was full of asbestos. He had received quotes to have the cancer-causing materials removed by a certified asbestos abatement company. But, instead of paying the cost of having the materials removed in a way that would be safe to workers, neighbors and others in the vicinity, he directed his associate, Clarence Cole, to hire unqualified day laborers who ripped out the asbestos illegally. The laborers were not informed of the asbestos hazard, nor were they given protective equipment to prevent inhalation of the toxic mineral.

The job was ultimately shut down when a concerned citizen brought the matter to the attention of city officials. However, rather than hiring a qualified abatement contractor to remediate the building as he was ordered to do, Smith continued to have day laborers illegally remove and dispose of asbestos materials, allowing asbestos dust to be released to the outside air.

Following a jury trial in Federal Court, Smith was convicted of conspiracy and five counts of violating the United States Clean Air Act. His associate Clarence Cole was sentenced to two years in prison. In addition, both were ordered to serve three years of supervised release and pay restitution of $451,936.80.

A November 6 article posted on the Salon website, addresses another incident in which undocumented workers in New Jersey were directed by Benjamin H. Realty Company to remove asbestos with their bare hands. Workers who protested these and other dangerous working conditions were fired. “The worst thing was the asbestos,” said Isaac Hernandez, who said he was “100% breathing this stuff in” in a tight crawl space without warning or proper equipment, and “we went with our clothes home, so not only were we exposed – our families were exposed.”

“Clearly, what happens is that when someone is undocumented they can be exploited and they frequently are,” said New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, who is trying to change labor immigration laws in his state.

While we are seeing an increasing number of criminal and civil charges stemming from the hiring of unqualified workers to remove asbestos “on the cheap”, one can’t help but wonder how many thousands of times this occurs on any given day. With all the homes and buildings constructed in the “peak asbestos years”, from the 1930s through the 1970s, the opportunity for desperate workers to be exposed to asbestos at the hands of unscrupulous and exploitative employers will continue for decades. Not only are unknowing workers exposed to this dangerous pollutant, their families, the local area and the community at large are also exposed when asbestos is improperly removed.

Asbestos waste is toxic waste and needs to be treated as such. When asbestos is removed and handled improperly, chances are that is also being disposed of improperly.

Federal and State laws prohibit the improper removal and disposal of asbestos. These laws were enacted to protect workers and the public at large from exposure to deadly asbestos dust.

If you suspect asbestos is being improperly removed or disposed you should contact the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Asbestos Hotline: (800) 368-5888 to file a confidential complaint, or visit the EPA’s website.