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Asbestos bill back on Senate floor

| May 31, 2006 12:00 AM

By ROGER MORRRIS Western News Publisher

The Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act was re-introduced to the U.S. Senate floor on Friday morning by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

During a hastily called teleconference Friday morning, Montana Sen. Conrad Burns said the national asbestos bill does contain some revisions.

"We haven't seen a full copy of it yet but there are some sketchy parts," Burns said. "One thing we're sure of right now is there are no changes to the Libby provisions."

Burns said the bill does provide prompt funding to the claimants who are most sick and tighter controls on leakage of funding.

The act was hotly debated in the Senate for the first three months of the year before it stalled in early April in face of opposition by several different groups, including senators concerned that Libby victims would be receiving favorable treatment not available in their states.

Burns and Montana's senior Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat, worked hard to show evidence that something different occurred in Libby - the entire community, at one time, was exposed to the deadly tremolite asbestos fibers contaminating vermiculite mined and milled by W.R. Grace.

Burns said some of that opposition might have been eliminated.

The bill was first introduced in the Senate more than 7 years ago to resolve the growing logjam of asbestos liability suits across the nation. As companies were offered an escape from their liability, a trust fund for asbestos victims evolved. Originally, Libby's victims of tremolite asbestos did not meet the medical criteria under the wording establishing that fund. Baucus introduced the so-called "Libby fix" to include them. However, when the bill passed from the judiciary committee to the full Senate, language was stripped from it eliminating a diffused lung capacity test (DCLO). Without the test, which measures the amount of oxygen that transfers from the lungs to the bloodstream, a significant number of Libby victims wouldn't qualify for the Libby fix.

Burns introduced an amendment to the bill in early February and with Baucus' help has been lobbying for both it and the overall bill.

In addition to bailing out asbestos companies, the act would create a $140 billion trust for asbestos victims.

Last winter, opposition to the asbestos bill came from insurance companies concerned about the lack of certainty as to how much money they would have to contribute to the trust fund, from other senators concerned about the Libby fix not being extended to communities in their state which received vermiculite ore from Grace's Libby operations as well as senators concerned that the trust fund was not big enough to settle all claims and the federal government would become responsible.

"I just want to make sure the Libby language is in there along with some other things," Burns said.