Asbestos exposure victims in Firm Build case speak in court

vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.December 20, 2013 

— Several former Merced County high school students who were exposed to asbestos on Friday confronted three men federal prosecutors say are responsible for putting their health at risk.

The group spoke in Fresno federal court during a sentencing and restitution hearing in the Firm Build case. Three former executives of Firm Build, Rudy Buendia III, Patrick Bowman and Joseph Cuellar, pleaded no contest in March to federal charges of violating federal asbestos laws. As part of their plea agreements, the defendants are each scheduled to spend about two years in federal prison.

Federal prosecutors say the men used the high school students to remove the cancer-causing substance from a renovation project at Castle Commerce Center, called the 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 renovation project by knowingly using the students to remove asbestos from the 2245 Jetstream Drive building, under the guise of involving them in work experience and job training programs.

An investigator with the Environmental Protection Agency on Friday testified that about 68 people may have been exposed to asbestos at the Castle site.

State and federal laws explicitly limit asbestos removal to personnel who have been adequately trained and properly equipped with special safety gear and clothing. The students at the Automotive Training Center were said to have demolished tiles, pipe insulation and other items containing asbestos with only hammers and other basic tools.

All of the former students who spoke in court Friday are now in their mid-20s. Many testified to U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill that their street clothes were covered in dust while removing the asbestos materials from the building.

Some said the debris from breaking up the material caused a fog-like cloud inside the building. “When we left the building, it looked like we had white hair because there was so much dust in it,” said former student Daisy Ambriz.

Some of the former students said the dust entered their noses and mouths.

Roberto Torres said the building was so dusty, he and his fellow students would need to take breaks, hoping the building would air out. Torres said he now suffers from frequent nose bleeds and chest pains. He wonders whether he’ll live long enough to raise children and see them grow into adulthood.

“I am concerned for my health and safety,” Torres told Judge O’Neill. “If I don’t make it to see kids, at least let justice happen to us, as students.”

Former student Vanessa Farias said she has thought the Firm Build program would be a good opportunity to get work experience. “I wasn’t told the insulation contained asbestos. All I was told was it would make me itch for a couple of days,” Farias said. “It’s really scary to think I could develop cancer and have all these problems.”

Others worried that they may have exposed their family members to asbestos upon coming home. “I could have contaminated my family,” said Daniel Avalos.

He and many other former students believe the three men deserve time in prison for their crimes. “They knew what they were doing, and I strongly believe these men should not be let off at all,” Avalos said.

The courtroom was packed Friday with supporters on both sides of the aisle. Several supporters of the defendants also spoke during the hearing, citing them as men who play an active role in the community.

Kevin Cuellar, son of defendant Joesph Cuellar, described his father as someone who taught him to be “honest and truthful.” Kevin Cuellar said he started his own company, thanks to the positive influence of his father. “I couldn’t ask for a better father,” he said.

In August, Judge O’Neill told prosecutors he thought the prison sentences in the plea agreements were excessive. He recommended attorneys to possibly negotiate a different deal.

But federal prosecutors maintained the plea agreements were appropriate, given the statements by the victims about how they’ve been affected by the asbestos exposure and compared to similar asbestos cases nationwide, according to court documents.

Despite the plea agreements, Buendia, Bowman and Cuellar probably won’t be formally sentenced for nearly two months.

Buendia’s attorney Jeremy Kroger indicated in court that his client has requested an independent review of the plea agreement. Kroger said Buendia may also file a motion to withdraw his plea deal. O’Neill set a Jan. 6 court date to discuss that issue. If Buendia doesn’t file a motion to withdraw his plea, O’Neill said the three men will be sentenced Feb. 3.

In addition to the federal case, the trio pleaded no contest in Merced County Superior Court in 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, although experts for the prosecution have stated medical monitoring costs for the victims over the next 50 years could be millions of dollars.

When the incident occurred, Bowman was Firm Build’s board president and coordinator of the Workplace Learning Academy, which was created at the Valley Community School to teach trade skills to at-risk students. Buendia was Firm Build’s project manager, who scouted and determined the nonprofit’s projects. Cuellar was an administrative manager who had the contractor’s license that Firm Build used to find grant funding, procure contracts and obtain permits for projects, according to investigators.

Several of the former students have filed a civil case in Merced County Superior Court that seeks undisclosed damages from Buendia, Bowman and Cuellar. The case, which seeks damages due to possible injuries and emotional suffering, also names the Merced County Office of Education as a defendant, in addition to Lee Andersen, Merced County superintendent of schools at the time.

The Merced County Office of Education signed a lease for the Jetstream Drive building in June 2005, with the intent to use vocational students to remodel it as an automotive teaching center. The lease was signed by Andersen and Jerry O’Banion, then chairman of the Board of Supervisors.

The documents disclosed asbestos, lead-based paint, black mold and groundwater contamination at the site. The asbestos was referenced in the lease and also in a sublease agreement.

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

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