Tuesday, March 28, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Asbestos Violators|Fined $1.8 Million

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - Three convicted former executives of a defunct nonprofit must pay $1.8 million to dozens of people who were exposed to asbestos when the company cut corners during renovation of an Air Force base in Northern California.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence O'Neill on Monday ordered Patrick Bowman, 48, of Los Banos, Joseph Cuellar, 74, of Fresno, and Rudolph Buendia, 52, of Planada to pay restitution to 65 victims who were exposed to airborne asbestos while removing debris from the former Castle Air Force Base in Atwater between 2005 and 2006.

The men were executives at Firm Build, a construction training company that was performing demolition and renovation work to convert the former Air Force base motor pool into an automotive mechanic training center in 2005.

The Merced County Office of Education had contracted with Firm Build to provide job training to high school students.

Bowman, Cuellar and Buendia cut corners by knowingly using students from Workplace Learning Academy to remove asbestos from the building from September 2005 to March 2006 under the guise of involving them in work experience and job training programs, federal prosecutors said.

The students, and employees of Firm Build, were told to remove and dispose of asbestos-containing insulation on pipes and other components without proper protective equipment or taking protective measures, prosecutors said.

Bowman, Cuellar and Buendia have been sentenced to 24 to 27 months in prison. They each pleaded guilty to one count of violating the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants Law, and no-contest to state felony charges of treating, handling or disposing of asbestos in a manner that caused an unreasonable risk of serious injury to students.

The $1.8 million restitution will go exclusively toward the cost of monitoring the lifetime health of the 65 people who were exposed to the asbestos, according to O'Neill's ruling.

"There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos," said Jay Green, special agent-in-charge of the Environmental Protection Agency's criminal enforcement program in California. "By directing student workers to illegally remove demolition debris containing asbestos, knowing the students had neither the training nor the proper safety equipment, the defendants in this case exposed the students and other workers at the job site, and their respective families, to dangerous and potentially deadly carcinogens, and jeopardized all of their futures.

"Today's sentence sends a strong message that EPA and its partner agencies will continue to protect those vulnerable to environmental crimes by vigorously prosecuting criminals who place profit ahead of public health," Green said.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.