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California Votech Charged with Child Endangerment over Asbestos Removal at Castle AFB

In Merced County, California, three corporate officers associated with a non-profit construction training company, or vocational technical training firm, have been charged with felony child endangerment for using teenagers to remove asbestos-containing materials, or ACMs, from a building at the former Castle Air Force Base (AFB) property north of Merced, in California’s fertile Central Valley.

The building, part of a complex called the Castle Commerce Center, contained the Automotive Training Center, which was being rehabbed for similar use. The firm in question is now-defunct Firm Build. The officers – Rudy Buendia III, Joseph Cuellar, and Patrick Bowman – face the felony endangerment charges for reportedly using as many as 80 teenagers to remove asbestos-containing floor tiles and insulation from pipes in the Center between 2005 and 2006.

According to Merced County District Attorney investigator Anna Hazel, the students not only removed dangerous ACMs, but did so with hammers and other hand tools, creating clouds of what are now presumed to be hazardous, airborne asbestos fibers.

Bowman, who was both Firm Build president and former coordinator at the Merced County Office of Education, reportedly arranged for the students, who were all members of the Workplace Learning Academy (a part of the Regional Occupational Program in the
Career and Alternative Education Division of the Merced County Office of Education), to work at the asbestos removal.

The Workplace Learning Academy was designed to provide vocational educational training to at-risk high school students; that is, those who were unlikely to graduate, or unlikely to graduate with enough academic status to find employment or go on to secondary education. The Academy provided students with educational credits; students in the Regional Occupational Program were actually paid, though reportedly at less than prevailing minimum wage.
Firm Build, which was a non-profit company, reportedly did not tell the students about the asbestos contained in the building materials removed, and did not provide them with the appropriate safety equipment like respirators and disposable coveralls and gloves. In fact, the students – working with nothing more than paper face masks, construction helmets and safety goggles – reportedly said that they had to take breaks outside because the dust inside became so thick.

Asbestos, a fibrous mineral widely used during most of the last century for its imperviousness to chemical exposure and its insulative qualities, was long suspected to cause a number of cancers, specifically mesothelioma, a cancer of the protective membranes around the lungs, heart and abdominal organs.

In 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) moved to abolish asbestos from domestic products by placing a limit of one percent of asbestos by weight or volume in any materials made within the country.

The well-funded asbestos lobby, however, succeeded in making inroads against that ruling, and by calendar year 2007-2008, the U.S. Geological Survey reports, asbestos imports has risen by nearly nine percent, to 1,880 tons. Thus it is no surprise that the asbestos legacy in this country sees about 10,000 people dying each year from asbestos-related illnesses, with 2,500 of those succumbing to mesothelioma.

Merced District Attorney investigators have since identified five students out of the 80 who had known contact with asbestos while working on the project. In 2008, an investigation into the financial debacle surrounding Firm Build saw Buendia and Cuellar charged with 15 felony counts, and Bowman facing seven. Two other members of Firm Build were also charged at that time.

The new charges, filed as part of a separate complaint, will serve up five counts of child endangerment and five counts of knowingly exposing individuals to hazardous materials to all three individuals.

According to reports, the project was signed off on by several Merced County officials, even though both the lease and the sublease documented the presence of asbestos. However, according to Hazel, it is unlikely that those officials actually knew about the presence of lethal asbestos when approving the project.


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