Three former executives of the defunct nonprofit Firm Build have been ordered to pay $1.8 million to dozens of victims — many of them high school students at the time — who were exposed to asbestos at the former Castle Air Force Base in Atwater.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill in Fresno on Monday ordered Joseph Cuellar, 74, of Fresno, Patrick Bowman, 48, of Los Banos, and Rudy Buendia III, 52, of Planada to pay the funds. The money will go exclusively toward the cost of monitoring the lifetime health of the 65 people who were exposed to the cancer-causing substance at the Castle Commerce Center’s Automotive Training Center.
The Merced County Office of Education had contracted with Firm Build to provide job training to high school students. Federal prosecutors say Bowman, Buendia and Cuellar cut corners on a renovation project by knowingly using high school students to remove asbestos from the 2245 Jetstream Drive building from September 2005 to March 2006 under the guise of involving them in work experience and job training programs.
The Merced County District Attorney’s Office launched the asbestos investigation in November 2009, and state and federal charges followed. The men eventually pleaded guilty to one count of violating the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants law. They also pleaded 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, with reckless disregard for their safety.
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While many of the victims exposed to the asbestos were teenagers, prosecutors said some adults who worked at the site were also exposed. The funds from Monday’s judgment are geared toward medically monitoring all of the victims for the rest of their lives.