Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Companies Stand To Save Billions On Asbestos Victims Bill

While the U.S. Continues to Import and Use the Deadly Material

Think asbestos exposure was a thing of the past? Think again
Most of the industrialized world has banned the use of what were once called "miracle fibers" for their fireproof properties. But Commerce Department figures show that U.S. importation of asbestos has increased 300 percent in the last decade, with much of the cancer-causing material being used in automotive brakes.

The Environmental Protection Agency has cautioned millions of homeowners who may have vermiculite insulation contaminated with asbestos to stay out of their attics.

And federal health investigators have begun a survey of 250 plants that handled asbestos-contaminated products from a vermiculite mine in Montana. They are warning people that were involved with the operations in any way to see their physicians.
Meanwhile, we're still paying the price of decades of illness caused by asbestos exposure in this country. We've discussed here several times last year's failed attempt in Congress to pass asbestos compensation legislation that would bring some order to the hundreds of thousands of asbestos suits that have been filed. There is little doubt that some attorneys have been using people who are not sick to exploit the problem, while the courts are so clogged that truly sick people wait years to be compensated or die before their case is heard. The idea behind the legislation was that, instead of unending lawsuits driving large and small companies bankrupt, there would be a fund upon which truly affected people could draw.

Last year's bill floundered for two reasons: the size of the fund, and the medical criteria used for determining who would be eligible for compensation. The fund that the companies and the insurance industry settled on was too small, according to labor. And then experts from the the industry got together to determine their own criteria.
"The criteria they adopted excluded almost all the recommendations made by those of us without ties to industry. What remains is criteria that excludes thousands and thousands of people actually ill with asbestos-related disease," said Dr. Mike Harbut, one of the nation's leading asbestos specialists.

As originally written, the criteria exclude thousands of people in Libby, Mont., whom federal testing showed had clinical signs of asbestos disease from a contaminated vermiculite mine. It would have excluded a Libby woman on her death bed in a Seattle hospital, because Hatch's act only allows those with occupational exposure to bring suit. The fact that the woman had been contaminated with asbestos that her late husband had carried home from the W.R. Grace mine would have made no difference.
(For more on the tragedy of Libby, Montana, see here, here, here and here.

Despite the problems, President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist have declares passage of an asbestos comp bill a major priority. "The torrent of asbestos litigation has wreaked havoc on asbestos victims, on American jobs, and this havoc has extended into our economy," said Frist. "

But St. Louis Dispatch reporter Andrew Schneider, who originally broke the Libby story, thinks that while bankruptcies may be a problem, chaos and havoc may be overstating the problem just a bit.
The Post-Dispatch found that a different picture emerges in Securities and Exchange Commission filings and press releases from the five largest asbestos targets who have filed for bankruptcy. The most recent reports from Armstrong, W.R. Grace, Federal Mogul, Owens Corning and U.S. Gypsum show that with a single exception, all have increased sales and have the same or a greater number of employees than before they filed Chapter 11.

Hatch's act not only would prevent most future suits against enormous corporations, it also would put some of them billions of dollars ahead of the game.

For example, in December, 2002, the Halliburton Corp. reached a settlement of $3.6 billion with thousands of people with asbestos diseases who had sued one of its subsidiaries.

Documents submitted to the Judiciary Committee say that under the proposed fairness legislation, no company would be forced to pay more than $25 million per year for 27 years into the compensation fund. Thus, the most a corporation would have to shell out would be $675 million. In Halliburton's case, it would have saved nearly $3 billion if the legislation goes into effect.
And then, ask some Congressional leaders, why are we spending all of this time and energy fighting about how to compensate past victims, when we're still importing and using asbestos in this country. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), supported by Senator Pat Leahy (D-VT), has introduced a bill to ban asbestos, but has so far gotten no Republican support.
"It would be irresponsible for Congress to consider a bill addressing the fallout from asbestos exposure that does not include a ban on its future use," said Leahy, who co-sponsored Murray's bill. "Too many innocent people have been poisoned by asbestos already."