Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Long way

| January 31, 2006 11:00 PM

We've come a long way since the first copy of H.R. 1283 crossed my desk.

In March 1999, that was the House bill that has since evolved into The Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act or FAIR. It's also correctly referred to as the asbestos company bail-out bill. There was nary a mention of Libby or tremolite asbestos in the original bill which would free W.R. Grace of its liabilities.

During the past 6 years, FAIR or it's predecessors has come up in one or the other houses of congress and it has been beaten back by various groups and senators because of what it doesn't include — adequate compensation for the victims of these companies who will be absolved of their liability in poisoning employees, customers and the public in general.

Adequate compensation is open to argument, and has been in congress. Some are concerned it's like writing an open-ended check. In the case of Libby's increasing number of asbestos victims, the question has been more who is eligible for a settlement. And that remains a problem with the latest bill on the eve of it's resurrection in the U.S. Senate.

Montana Senators Conrad Burns and Max Baucus are well versed on the Libby problem and have already waded into the murky waters of the asbestos litigation bail-out making sure that Libby is represented in whatever bill might be passed. Baucus has already gotten needed provisions in the bill providing levels of compensation for Libby victims. For a victim diagnosed with mesothelioma it's about a $1 million settlement. For everyone else who qualifies, it's about $400,000 paid out over a three-year period.

The problem is that Libby victims are suffering from asbestos-related disease from exposure to the asbestos amphibole tremolite and not asbestosis, which is more commonly depicted in legislation due to exposure to the chrysotile form of asbestos. The medical criteria in the bill is such that a significant number of the Libby victims would not qualify.

Senator Burns is working to solve that with a language change once the legislation is on the senate floor for discussion. He won't be the only one looking to amend the bill's language.

Last year, numerous senators expressed concern with what has been dubbed the "Libby exclusion" and more recently the "Libby fix." The concern is based on the perception that Libby victims are getting something for nothing. And there is concern that the Libby fix could end up costing a whole lot more than the proposed $140 billion trust can handle.

Last Saturday, in a community discussion with Burns and his staff, Libby victims and officials, agreed that the compensation from this bill is like a punitive award from a lawsuit and in no way provides the healthcare that is needed in Libby for victims.

That landslide remains perched above the community, and perhaps the state. But our delegation is well aware of it and looking for a way to deflect it.

We're lucky. Truly fortunate to have both senators, from different parties, working on the problem. With their increasing stature in the Senate based on longevity, it's quite a tag team.

Some people are still holding out hope (for the lack of a better word) that Grace will be made to act responsibly for what happened here. There are three places that can happen: The FAIR bill, the criminal trial and in the bankruptcy proceeding. The latter is less likely because of the size and name of some of Grace's creditors.

It makes you wonder why Grace would be crazy enough to go to trial on the criminal charges later this year. — Roger Morris