Day laborers deliberately exposed to asbestos in Philadelphia

Imagine being someone unemployed, or maybe an illegal immigrant, or maybe simply someone desperate for work and getting the opportunity to make some extra money by cleaning out a warehouse in Philadelphia's Logan section. Could easily happen.

What shouldn't have happened is what it did happen to those workers. The owner of the building, Gene Cornell Smith, 46, of Lumberton, Burlington County., knew the building was full of asbestos, a carcinogen. He even put out a bid for removal. Guess Smith didn't like the estimate, since he found an associate, Clarence Cole, who was willing to hire unqualified day laborers to do the job. Neither Cole nor Smith provided equipment or training to these workers. Tipped off, city officials ordered Smith to close up the site and hire a qualified contractor. He did not, and allowed asbestos emissions to continue.

Smith was sentenced to 42 months in prison Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe in Philadelphia. In January, a jury convicted him of conspiracy and five counts of violating the Clean Air Act. Cole pleaded guilty in January and was sentenced in June to 24 months in prison.  Federal Superfund money had to be used to clean up the contamination caused by the illegal work ordered by the two men.

"These defendants knowingly removed asbestos-containing materials illegally, putting workers and the general public at great risk," said David G. McLeod, Jr., Special Agent in Charge of EPA's criminal enforcement program for the Middle Atlantic States, said in a statement. "The real victims in this case are neighboring residents who have no way to protect themselves against this type of environmental crime."

I don't know why McLeod had to distinguish between the residents and the workers here. Both are victims -- and in the case of the workers, Cole and Smith knew they were deliberately putting them directly in harm's way. What will happen to these workers, who are probably poor and vulnerable if they are working as day laborers, if and when they get sick?