Court Imposes $1.8 Million Restitution Order Against Three Defendants In Merced County Unlawful Asbestos Abatement Case
FRESNO, Calif. —Defendants, Joseph Cuellar, age 74, a resident of Fresno, California; Patrick Bowman, age 48 of Los Banos, California; and Rudolph Buendia, age 52 of Planada, California, were ordered today to pay a total of $1,801,832.50 in restitution to 65 victims exposed to airborne asbestos as a result of defendants' unlawful asbestos abatement at Building 325 at the former Castle Air Force Base in Atwater, California, United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced. The order, which was a result of the defendants’ prior convictions for knowingly violating the asbestos work practice standards of the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants, was part of a written ruling issued by United States District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill. All three defendants previously entered guilty pleas and all had been sentenced to terms of imprisonment of between 24 and 27 months.
The 65 victims referenced in the order made claims for restitution for the costs of medical monitoring necessary for the early detection of asbestos-related illnesses that might arise as a result of their exposure to airborne asbestos caused by defendants' unlawful asbestos abatement crimes.
According to court documents, Firm Build, Inc., performed the demolition and renovation work to convert the former Castle Air Force Base's motor pool at Building 325 into an automotive mechanic training center. Bowman was Firm Build's president, Cuellar was its administrative manager, and Buendia was its construction project site manager. The prosecution stemmed from defendants' unlawful asbestos abatement during the demolition and renovation of Building 325 during September 2005 through January 31, 2006. During the renovation at Building 325, Firm Build, Inc., directed its employees and high school students from the Workplace Learning Academy to remove and dispose of asbestos containing insulation on pipe and on other facility components without utilizing proper protective equipment or taking protective measures. Bowman was also the Vice-Principal in charge of the Workplace Learning Academy.
This case is the result of an investigation by the Merced County District Attorney's Office, the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
“There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos,” said Jay Green, Special Agent-in-Charge of EPA’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.”
Assistant United States Attorneys Samuel Wong and Melanie Alsworth prosecuted the case.District Judge O'Neill previously ordered Cuellar to self-surrender for service of his sentence on March 9, 2015.