Two men get prison time for exposing Merced County students to asbestos

vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.March 31, 2014 

Two men convicted of exposing Merced County high school students to asbestos will soon be headed to prison.

Patrick Bowman and Rudy Buendia III were sentenced in Fresno federal court Monday by U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill to 27 and 24 months respectively in federal prison, according to the office of U.S. District Attorney Benjamin Wagner.

The third person in the case, Joseph Cuellar, filed a motion to withdraw his no contest plea. The motion was denied. The judge gave Cuellar’s attorney until May 15 to file additional motions prior to sentencing. A year ago, the trio pleaded no contest to federal charges of violating federal asbestos laws.

The three men were executives at the now-defunct nonprofit Firm Build. Federal prosecutors say the men used the high school students to remove the cancer-causing substance from a renovation project at Castle Commerce Center’s Automotive Training Center from September 2005 to March 2006.

The Merced County Office of Education had contracted with Firm Build to provide job training to high school students. Prosecutors say Bowman, Buendia and Cuellar cut corners on the project by knowingly using the students to remove asbestos from the 2245 Jetstream Drive building, under the guise of work experience and job training programs.

In a statement released Monday, Wagner called the actions of the men “reckless.”

“The sentences imposed today should remind all who may be involved in handling such materials that disregarding federal environmental laws can result in prison time. I am grateful for the support of the investigations bureau of the Merced County District Attorney’s Office, and of Cal-EPA and the California Department of Justice, in the course of the investigation and prosecution of this case,” Wagner said.

“There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos,” Jay M. Green, special agent-in-charge of the Environmental Protection Agency’s criminal enforcement program in California, said in a statement. “Directing student workers to illegally remove demolition debris containing asbestos, knowing they had neither the training nor the proper personal protective equipment, threatens their health and safety.”

In addition to the federal case, the trio pleaded no contest in Merced County Superior Court last May to state felony charges of treating, handling or disposing of asbestos in a manner that caused an unreasonable risk of serious injury to students, with reckless disregard for their safety. Under the terms of their plea deals, the time they spend in federal prison will cover the convictions in both state and federal court.

Restitution amounts are still being discussed in the case. Experts for the prosecution have stated medical monitoring costs for the victims over the next 50 years could be millions of dollars. An investigator with the EPA in December testified that about 68 people may have been exposed to asbestos at the Castle site.

Bowman and Buendia are expected to report to federal officials on June 27 to begin serving their prison sentences. A decision hasn’t been made about where they will serve their time.

Sun-Star City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

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