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Homeless Used To Remove Asbestos

April 24, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Vulnerable and seeking work, the homeless are increasingly becoming victims in illegal asbestos removal scams where they are employed without training or adequate protection, the Justice Department said Friday.

The problem was highlighted with the announcement of indictments against three Wisconsin men. They are accused of bringing workers from a Chattanooga, Tenn., homeless shelter to their state to illegally remove asbestos from a building being demolished.

Attorney General Janet Reno, calling such activity ``a shameful human exploitation″ promised the government would take every step to prosecute illegal asbestos removal cases that involve untrained homeless people, teen-agers and unqualified day laborers.

``Knowingly removing asbestos improperly is criminal,″ Reno told a news conference also attended by EPA Administrator Carol Browner. Using vulnerable people for such activity violates ``the basic standard of human decency.″

Asbestos fiber, often used to insulate older buildings, is a hazardous material whose fibers can become deeply imbedded in the lungs and cause respiratory illnesses and even cancer. Its removal is regulated closely to ensure that special precautions including protective masks and respirators are used. Workers must follow special removal procedures such as wetting down the material and putting it into special containers.

The department cited prosecutions in nine states since September involving the hiring of untrained workers, often homeless people or unwary teen-agers, to rip out asbestos. They included:

_A man sentenced to two years in prison for illegal asbestos removal from a Seattle building. He employed homeless men and day laborers.

_The hiring of two homeless men to remove asbestos from a Miami warehouse. Two men who did the hiring were sentenced to five months in jail.

_A man pleaded guilty in New Hampshire to charges of illegal asbestos removal. At least one worker was homeless.

_In Alaska, a small aviation company operator who hired untrained teen-agers for an asbestos removal project pleaded guilty to improper asbestos removal. The company agreed to pay a $50,000 fine and establish a trust fund for medical monitoring of the teen-agers.

_A Pittsburgh school supervisor was indicted for asbestos removal violations after he allegedly hired untrained workers including high school students to do such work.

``We’re talking about a nationwide problem,″ said Lois J. Schiffer, assistant attorney general for environment and natural resources.

Reno said these cases are ``the tip of the iceberg″ since violations often are not reported.

The department sent warning notices to homeless shelters and announced an EPA telephone hot line _ 1-800-368-5888 _ for people to call if they believe someone is being hired for improper asbestos removal.

Browner called the violations ``a callous disregard of the law ... (and) the health of workers,″ generally because of greed. The required training costs about $1,000 and takes 32 hours, she said.

Indictments made public Friday charged the three Wisconsin men _ Buddy V. Frazier, Chance C. Gaines and James E. Bragg _ with illegal asbestos removal, not training the homeless workers and failing to follow safe removal procedures. The maximum penalty is five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. The case involved 13 workers, six of whom allegedly came from the Community Kitchen homeless shelter in Chattanooga, Tenn., to Marshfield, Wis., to remove asbestos from a Weyerhaeuser building.

The case was exposed when a worker complained about not being paid, Browner said.

Mary Ann Gleason, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said the organization was ``alarmed and horrified that now in several states people are both exploiting and putting in harm’s way homeless individuals eager for employment opportunities.″

The Justice Department cited prosecutions in Alaska, Connecticut, Florida, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

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