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Burns, Baucus take Libby fight to Senate floor

| February 9, 2006 11:00 PM

Montana's two U.S. Senators took the fight to the Senate floor on Wednesday urging support for the Libby provisions in the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2006 and challenging their collegues to find another community that faces similar environmental and health challenges.

The Senate voted 98-1 on Tuesday on a motion to proceed, "to invoke cloture," allowing the bill to be debated and voted on.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa, said on the floor, "Any Senator who votes not to proceed is saying to his constituents, is saying to the people suffering from mesothelioma, people suffering from asbestos exposure, anybody who votes no on the motion to proceed is saying there's no problem. I think that's a pretty tough vote to explain."

Specter continued, "I commend Senator Burns for his diligence in looking after his constituents with special reference to Libby. Anybody who has listened to Senator Burns who doesn't think we ought to proceed and take up this problem simply has his or her head in the sand."

While on the floor Tuesday, Burns showed pictures of a contaminated baseball field in Libby and of the W.R. Grace processing facility in Libby. He also read personal statements from Libby residents Eva Thomson, Charlotte DeShazer Wade, and Jim Davidson detailing the personal pain and suffering from asbestos-related diseases.

"I have two sons, both them and I have asbestos-related disease," Burns said reading Eva Thomson's statement. "But they are not eligible by the standards in the existing bill as it is today. If the bill cannot be done right to protect us victims, please don't pass it at all. We place 225 crosses in the cemetery this Memorial Day in remembrance of asbestos victims. There are more than 20 new crosses this year. We need help, real help, and she thanks me.

"Yet I have another one from Charlotte Wade, who says, 'Please don't forget us. I watched my Dad Jack die in 2002 and my mother Margaret die and suffocate from asbestos in 2004. I'm next. I've been on oxygen since the year 2000. My three grown children, no doubt, will follow.

Burns continued by reading the statement from Jim Davidson, long time resident of Libby, Montana, who has been diagnosed with mesothelioma. "Because of the short time I have left, I'm vitally interested in seeing that a compromise is reached to allow passage of some type of relief to me and all others affected by asbestos and worse. As you know, there's no other avenue left to those of us in Libby, Montana, because of the bankruptcy of W.R. Grace. So I urge to you work for some type of help for us."

On Wednesday morning, Burns filed an amendment to the S.852 to include the lung diffusion capacity test or DLCO provisions for Libby. Without the language, about 40 percent of the Libby people diagnosed withy asbestos-related disease would not qualify for the so-called "Libby fix" included the bill.

Jody Peters, Burns' legislative aide, said Burns filed the amendment and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., co-sponsored the amendment adding test. It will come up on floor Thursday but it looks like a stack of amendments will be discussed on Thursday and Friday, Peters said during a teleconference Wednesday afternoon with Libby residents.

She said five or six senators are expected to attempt to cut the Libby fix.

"The president has issued a statement that he wants something passed and that he has some unnamed concerns with it," Peters continued. "We don't know what they (the concerns) are but have been told it's very serious."

As of late afternoon on Wednesday, burns DLCO amendment was the only one officially filed, she said.

"We're prepared to fight that fight," Peters said. "Our first goal is to defend what is in the bill already and then improve it by putting in the DLCO. The staff is keeping an eye on everything coming through."

Peters said there are many senators questioning whether $140 billion is enough, there is concern with liability ultimatelyfalling to federal government.

There have been a lot of problems that senators have withe legislation, Peters said.

"I know that members have some very real concerns with the size of this trust fund and who may make claim to it," Burns said in his floor speech Wednesday. "I think the Libby language that we have in the bill now is fair, and I'll make the case for that because we think it is perceived to be inequitable in its treatment.

Burns defended language in the asbestos reform legislation on Libby, following attacks by some senators, including Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who compared Libby to East Hampton, Mass.

"I fail to see how the exposure in Libby is equal to the suffering in any other cities," Burns said Wednesday morning on the Senate floor. "The exposure to asbestos was limited in some of those cities into confined areas. As I explained yesterday the circumstances in Libby are much worse. The main thing is that the entire community was exposed by the wind from an open pit mine as opposed to communities that had enclosed facilities that processed the ore from the Libby mines. So we're talking about an entire valley, an entire city that was exposed by the wind from an open-pit mine. Not only did family members of the mine workers fall ill, but the entire town was contaminated."

On Tuesday, Kennedy said that the real crisis in America was not an asbestos litigation crisis, but an asbestos-induced disease crisis.

"The residents of Libby are certainly entitled to compensation, but so are the residents who lived near the many processing plants from Massachusetts to California that received the lethal ore from the Libby mine," Kennedy said. "The deadly dust from Libby, Montana was spread across America. W.R. Grace shipped almost 10 billion pounds of Libby ore to its processing facilities between the 1960s and the mid 1990s. One of the places it was shipped was to the Town of Easthampton, Mass., where the operations of an expanding plant spread the asbestos to the surrounding environment, into the air and onto the soil."

Failure to compensate the residents of areas that have experienced large-scale asbestos contamination is a major shortcoming of the legislation, the Massachusetts senator said urging senators to vote against the proposed bill.

"This is a unique incident," Burns said. "It's a unique area. And we're not talking about a structure. And we're not talking about a factory. We're talking about an entire community that was exposed to asbestos. I think I read yesterday where this Memorial Day they'll put up over 200 crosses for people who died from asbestos. They have added 20. Twenty crosses due to asbestos diseases in the last year. So I think we have a unique situation."

Senate minority leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., also opposes the bill saying it does not meet the needs of people suffering from asbestos-related illness and the proposed trust fund of $140 billion is insufficient. Reid also said he believed the American taxpayers "will be saddled with a huge government bailout of a trust fund that is virtually guaranteed to fail."

During deabte Wedneasday on the issue, Baucus, Montana's senior senator, weighed in.

"People in Libby are sick," Baucus said. "They suffer from asbestos-related disease at a rate 40-to-60 times the national average. And people from Libby suffer from the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma, at a rate 100 times the national average. Seventy percent of those affected with tremolite asbestos disease never worked in the mine.

"Let me introduce you to some people from Libby. Arthur Bundrock worked in the mine for 19 years. He suffered from asbestosis for 21 years, and the suffering was made worse from the knowledge he carried the asbestos laden dust back home to his family. When Arthur died in 1998, six out of seven members of his family had asbestosis."

Baucus continued, "And then there's Toni Riley. Toni Riley never worked at the mine. But like many kids in Libby, she played in piles of vermiculite ore as a child. These piles were all over the town. Like playing in a sandbox, kids played in piles of asbestos. Toni Riley was a member of the local search and rescue team and an emergency medical technician with the Libby Volunteer Ambulance. She was also a reserve deputy with the sheriff's office for five years. In 1996, she was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Toni died on December 4, 1998.

"Toni is just one of more than 200 known cases where people from Libby have died as a result of asbestos related disease. W.R. Grace may have closed its doors. But the people in Libby will be plagued by asbestos for years to come."

Baucus concluded by saying Libby needed help.

"Libby is not a rich city," he said. "In 2000, the median family income in Libby was just under $30,000. That compares with just over $40,000 in all of Montana, and just over $50,000 in all of America. Libby is working to overcome years of asbestos exposure from the W.R. Grace mine. They have been through enough. They did not ask for this lot. That's why I fought to make sure that asbestos bills working through the Senate addressed the needs of the people of Libby. The good people of Libby need our help. They are dying up there. The town has risen mightily to the challenges that it has faced. But they need our help. They deserve our help."

Peters, Burns' aide, said debate and voting on whatever amendments are filed will continue Thursday and Friday along with some procedural votes on unusual things. Debate will continue into early next week but "Thursday will be a very active day," she said.

"We're trying to see if we can get it (the DLCO provision) accepted without a floor vote but probably not," Peters said.

And she said this asbestos lesgislation is probably not the vehicle for health care for the community.

"This debate over the asbestos bill is probably going to end within the week but I don't want this discussion on asbestos helath care to end, we can continue to meet on the communities needs," she said.