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Too much for too many?

| April 20, 2005 12:00 AM

The devil is always in the details.

Unfortunately there are few details available about the latest asbestos relief bill being considered by the U.S. Senate judiciary committee.

We know there is a $140 billion relief fund being proposed for victims. We know that several insurance companies, who were to participate in amassing that fund have withdrawn recently.

We know that Sen. Patty Murray's (D-Wash.) asbestos ban has been included in the bill, in some form or another.

And we know that Sen. Max Baucus has worked diligently to make sure Libby asbestos victims of W.R. Grace's mining and milling operations here are eligible for compensation. Libby victims diagnosed with severe asbestosis will be eligible for a minimum of $400,000. Lung cancer victims diagnosed with asbestosis are eligible for $600,000 or $975,000 depending on whether they are considered a smoker or not.

This may be where the devil gets into the detail.

In past proposed bills, Libby victims didn't qualify under the criteria established, which has been mostly oriented toward victims of chrysotile asbestos not the more toxic tremolite seen in Libby vermiculite. A Libby victim is not eligible for the above awards until he or she is approved by the fund administrator or medical panel. That rings up criteria and who makes up that medical panel.

Progress is only just happening in the medical and scientific worlds to recognize that exposure to tremolite asbestos affects the body differently than chrysotile exposure and that the tremolite caused diseases progress differently.

Baucus and his staff know this from their countless trips to Libby and conversations with local victims and doctors.

But Montana's senior senator is playing in the political field where anything is possible from day-to-day. He is a member of the minority party and there are signs of widespread opposition nationwide to the latest bill, as well as the exodus of some of the insurance companies crucial to establishing the trust fund.

There is even opposition to the existing proposal from more conservative pundits claiming the proposal is far too liberal in payouts of various kinds and corporations might be better off taking their chances in the court room. That doesn't relieve the backlog of asbestos cases in the country's courts - a purported reason for the legislation.

Frankly, it appears another proposal is headed for crash and burn. But then hey, a good bill will probably be just as unpopular with all sides.

I still think we need to start with an asbestos ban and work from there. At least that establishes some sort of distant timeline when exposures and lawsuits begin to wane. The present attempt may be suffering from trying to be too much for too many.- Roger Morris