The managers of a non-profit construction-training program face felony child endangerment charges for allowing their teenage trainees to handle dangerous materials containing asbestos. Prosecutors in Merced County, California, allege that the directors of Firm Build, a vocational training company designed to teach youngsters about the construction and remodeling trades, used their students to clear out asbestos from a local air force base and did not inform them of the potential dangers.
A local judge issued arrest warrants for Rudy Buendia III, 47; Joseph Cuellar, 70; and Patrick Bowman, 43. Mr. Buendia and Mr. Cuellar were managers with the Firm Build program and Mr. Bowman was the president of the program’s board of directors, as well as the former coordinator for the Merced County Office of Education. Mr. Buendia and Mr. Bowman were taken into custody at the Merced County Jail. Mr. Cuellar turned himself in to the Fresno County Jail, from which he will be transferred to neighboring Merced County.
According to the Merced County District Attorney’s Office, the basis of the charges comes from the actions during a Firm Build project at Castle Air Force Base. Court documents allege that the program did not inform the teenage workers of the presence of asbestos in the older buildings. They also did not provide proper training, include federally mandated safety gear at the work site, or take the required precautions for the handling and relocation of the asbestos-laced debris.
Prosecutors will attempt to prove that the company employed up to eighty teenage workers in asbestos-handling duties at the air base’s Automobile Training Center. In 2005 and 2006, Firm Build gave students hardhats, eye goggles and inexpensive dust masks while they handled and removed asbestos-laced brake pads and other car parts from the base’s motor pool. Federal standards for asbestos workers require that they be provided a full suite of safety equipment and be trained in how to properly dispose of asbestos-containing materials.
Interviews with students and mentors who participated in the program confirmed the authorities’ suspicions, as did an examination of the project logbooks. Due to the expense involved in insuring that project workers maintain strict safety guidelines, many firms will either leave the asbestos-laced debris in place or take cost-cutting measures to remove the hazardous materials.
Merced County Prosecutor Larry Morse said that he found the idea of a construction company allowing young people to be exposed to carcinogenic materials “simply to cut corners” is “shocking”. He also stated that the youngsters would now face an uncertain future due to their exposure to asbestos.
Numerous studies have established a link between asbestos exposure and a variety of respiratory ailments. The most severe disease brought on by asbestos exposure is malignant pleural mesothelioma, a form of cancer that strikes the soft lining around the lungs. Patients may not display symptoms of the disease for years. However, when a patient is diagnosed with the disease, their average life expectancy is less than two years.
A judge set bail for each defendant at $500,000. In addition to the child endangerment charges, they also face charges of exposing a person to hazardous material. If convicted, each defendant could face up to six years in prison and a $10,000 fine for each count.
Sources: San Jose Mercury News, The Turlock Journal