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Asbestos bill remains in committee

| May 4, 2005 12:00 AM

The Senate Judiciary Committee failed to complete discussion Thursday on the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2005, which does not include adequate provisions for Libby victims.

The committee is expected to resume discussion May 12 after the Senate returns from its May recess.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., expressed disappointment that the Libby provisions were insufficient and different from earlier drafts of the bill, which had offered substantive relief for Libby claimants.

"I won't support a bill that doesn't include coverage for Libby claimants," Burns said. "This bill has a lot of moving parts to it, which were adequate in earlier drafts but as introduced recently and considered in the Judiciary Committee, they were very different."

Sen. Max Baucus, D- Mont., has said he, too, will withdraw his support of the bill if Libby victims aren't fully compensated.

The two senators have worked closely with Libby residents as well as their legal representatives, who estimate that under the current provision, 80 percent of Libby residents will be excluded from the Trust Fund.

Baucus, a bill co-sponsor, was to introduce on Thursday two short amendments to insure that Libby victims receive adequate compensation.

When the bill was introduced April 19, the "Libby provisions" had been weakened substantially because of concerns that they would compensate people who were not yet sick with asbestos-related disease. The wording in Baucus' amendments would provide Level IV compensation, which starts at $400,000, for Libby victims who

\are sick. The amendments would also insure that Libby residents not yet sick would qualify and as the condition of people suffering from asbestos-related disease worsens, there would be an increase in compensation.

However, news reports from Washington, D.C., indicated that the judiciary committee was overwhelmed with 83 separate amendments to the proposed national legislation to create a $140 billion Asbestos Trust Fund for those suffering from asbestos-related diseases. The senate committee managed to work through 18 of the amendments with more expected in the coming week.

During the committee action Thursday, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) offered an amendment to strike the Libby-specific language and extend the Level IV rewards to those that have claims against companies that have been the subject of either criminal indictments or convictions.

Feinstein offered an amendment that was approved going California $40 million to help determine the extent and location of naturally occurring tremolite asbestos in communities in the Sacramento area.

The Sacramento Bee newspaper has been reporting for more than 5 years that commercial and residential development taking place atop the naturally occurring surface deposits posed a serious health risks to area residents.

Feinstein raised concerns that the Libby provision as written was unconstitutional.

"The fate of the Libby provision is up in the air," Burns said. "The provision missed the mark when the bill was introduced, and as a result of the committee's action today, it needs to be significantly redrafted."

Baucus aide Barrett Kaiser looked at the additional time as good for Libby.

"The good news is that it gives us additional time to lobby for Libby," he said. "There's still a lot of ball game left to play."

S. 852, the "Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2005," was introduced by Specter and cosponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Orrin Hatch R-Utah, Charles Grassley R-Iowa, Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, George Voinovich, R-Ohio, Feinstein and Baucus.

On the judiciary committee, Specter has the backing of seven senators with one leaning towards supporting the legislation. The bill needs the support of 10 senators of the 18-member committee to get to the Senate floor.