The fact that people in the world’s richest nation must live on the street is a tragedy and should be an embarrassment. Exploiting homeless people for economic gain is a crime. That’s what John Edward Callahan found out this month when he pleaded guilty to violating the federal Clear Air Act. In 2005, Callahan’s firm, Environmental Construction, was hired to remove asbestos from the ceiling and pipes of the State & City Building in Roanoke, Virginia. According to Callahan, his company had undertaken many asbestos abatement projects over the years. However, neither Callahan nor his company was licensed or trained for handling asbestos, as is mandated by federal law. For the State & City Building project, Callahan hired three day-laborers, one of whom gave his address as the local rescue mission. He issued the men raincoats and paper breathing masks that were completely inadequate for filtering microscopic asbestos fibers, and had them cut down the asbestos insulation without wetting it down according to standard procedure.
The three workers then removed their masks while eating lunch there at the worksite; afterwards, the asbestos was tossed into plastic garbage bags and sent to a landfill instead of a hazmat facility in compliance with state and federal regulations. The three homeless men were paid $10 per hour for their labors. Federal sentencing provides for harsher penalties if the victims are considered vulnerable, as is the case of the homeless. Callahan’s defense attorney argued that since one of the men had listed a physical address, he did not qualify as “homeless.” As part of the plea bargain, this objection was dropped. In return, the government recommended the low end of the prison sentence for Callahan. He will now serve 21 months, followed by three years probation. As a result of the investigation of the State & City Building contract, Callahan was obliged to surrender his contractor’s license. His firm went under shortly thereafter. Since Callahan has no money, the court decided not to assess a fine nor require him to pay for medical monitoring and treatment of the three asbestos workers.