Asbestos Policy (6-2-05)
Libby, Montana, home of the now defunct W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite
mine, has brought a renewed interest in the health dangers of asbestos.
A series of Seattle
Post-Intelligencer articles beginning in November 1999 about
the Libby vermiculite mine and the nearly 200 asbestos-related deaths
there over the last 40 years prompted a public outcry, two federal
investigations into government agencies' failure to warn Libby residents
and workers, declaration of a Superfund site, and a renewed interested
in banning asbestos products. Asbestos is classified as a Group A
carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
due to health risks associated with inhalation, including lung cancer,
mesothelioma, and asbestosis. While legislation managing compensation
for victims of asbestos stumbled by the end of the 108th Congress,
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and presumptive Minority
Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will likely resume negotiations in the 109th
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a $140 billion
asbestos trust fund bill (S.
852) on May 26, 2005. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) formally introduced
the bill in April, after months of trying to resolve disputes among
Republicans and Democrats regarding the size of the fund, how to compensate
victims with related diseases, and how to provide fair compensation
for spouses. Voting on the bill had been further delayed by the fight
in the Senate over President Bushs judicial nominations in mid-May.
After seven mark-ups, the bill was finally approved by a bipartisan
vote of 13-5. All of the panels Republicans backed the bill,
plus ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA.),
and Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-WI).
Asbestos-related personal injury lawsuits have flooded
courts for the past two decades. This bill would take the claims out
of the court system by compensating victims directly from the $140
billion fund created by manufacturing and insurance company payments.
Due to the size of the trust fund, the bill is expected
to spend a significant amount of time on the Senate floor. Sen. Specter
predicts that the bill will be backed by President Bush and supported
on the floor by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN). Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ),
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) that voted in
favor of the bill in the committee have stated that they will vote
against the bill on the floor if it is not revised.
A provision in the bill provides special compensation
for the citizens of Libby, Montana where W.R. Grace Company operated
a vermiculite mine from 1963 to 1990 that was contaminated with asbestos.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) proposed an amendment to provide these
same benefits for citizens living around the 28 processing plants
across the country that received shipments from Libby. Although the
amendment failed, it led to disturbing discoveries for Senators on
the committee that found processing plants on their own state maps.
"This is the first time in two years of working on this that
someone has put a map in front of me with two big splotches in California,"
Feinstein said. "This is a potentially explosive issue.
According to the EPA
Asbestos Home Page: "Asbestos is a problem because, as a
toxic substance and a known carcinogen, it can cause several serious
diseases in humans. Symptoms of these diseases typically develop over
a period of years following asbestos exposure." The web site
provides information about where asbestos
is commonly found, and other commonly
asked questions. Asbestos is classified as a Group A carcinogen
by the EPA due to health risks associated with inhalation. Primary
health concerns include lung cancer, mesothelioma (cancer of the thin
membranes lining the abdominal cavity and surrounding internal organs),
and asbestosis (a specific form of lung disease).
The EPA issued a rule prohibiting the manufacture, processing, and
importation of most asbestos products in 1989 due to the related health
problems; however, a 1991 ruling by the US Fifth Circuit Court of
Appeals, in response to a lawsuit brought by the American and Canadian
asbestos industries, essentially negated the rule. The lawsuit argued
that the EPA had not thoroughly studied alternatives to an asbestos
ban. In the 107th Congress, the Senate Committee on Health, Education,
Labor, and Pensions (HELP)
held a hearing to look into asbestos issues, with the possible goal
of beginning to form regulations for the production and use of the
In a 1999 Supreme Court ruling
that revoked a $1.5 billion class action settlement, the justices
ruled that the settlement had compromised the rights of the victims
and that it was up to Congress to develop legislation to help move
the numerous asbestos lawsuits through the court system at a faster
pace. A 2002 report released by Sebago
Associates, which was commissioned by the American
Insurance Association, estimated the cost of asbestos claims resulted
in more than 60 companies filing for bankruptcy. Momentum has been
building in the past few years on Capitol Hill to pass legislation
regarding asbestos-related claims.
In Libby, Montana, home to the W.R. Grace and Co.'s closed vermiculite
mine, nearly 200 people have died over the last 40 years, and more
than 375 additional people have been diagnosed with asbestos-related
fatal diseases. A byproduct of the vermiculite mining was the release
of tremolite, a form of asbestos, into the air. In addition, there
is concern that vermiculite ore shipped from Libby across the country
may have contaminated other plants as well.
After years of debating who had the authority to address the environmental
and medical problems of Libby, and whether the statute of limitations
on a criminal investigation had expired, the EPA finally insisted
on May 26, 1999, that the site must be cleaned up. Less than a week
later the EPA announced that it had known about the asbestos situation
in Libby since the mid-1980's and found that asbestos-related death
rates would be nearly 100%, yet had done nothing about it. This spurred
the EPA to request an outside agency to perform an audit of the activities
surrounding the mine, which was released in April of 2001, one day
after W.R. Grace filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. On October 23, 2002,
the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the addition of
the Libby site to the National
Priority List for Superfund sites.
Abestos legislation in the 108th Congress focused on two key bills.
One was Senator Patty Murray's (D-WA) bill called the Ban Asbestos
in America Act S.1115,
which would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban
asbestos in two years, conduct a public awareness campaign about asbestos,
invest in research and treatment of asbestos diseases, and issue a
study into the non-regulated forms of asbestos by the National Academies
and the EPA's Blue Ribbon Panel. Henry Waxman (D-CA) introduced the
companion bill HR
2277 in the House. The bill never made it out of the committee
The other bill was the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act
of 2003, S.1125,
sponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT). The bill would establish
a United States Court of Asbestos Claims, separate from the judicial
system, which would disburse compensation to abestos victims through
a privately funded publically managed trust fund. Claimants would
be awarded financial compensation in correlation with their level
of exposure and any resulting impairment to themselves or deceased
relatives. This court would be exclusively for claims regarding work
place exposure, but people exposed to asbestos outside of the work
place would still be able to bring claims through the tort system.
Also excluded from this process would be claims under worker compensation
and veterans' rights jurisdiction.
That bill hit a road block in the Senate when Senate Majority Leader
Bill Frist (R-TN) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) failed to
broker a compromise that would enjoy bipartisan support. Acording
to EE Daily, "The two leaders have agreed to a $140 billion trust
fund, which is $16 billion more than Frist and Hatch sought, but there
was little consensus beyond that. Among the thorniest issues yet to
be resolved is how much money companies who have exposed their workers
to asbestos would have to front for the creation of a fund and where
to draw the line on the number of existing asbestos tort claims that
would be referred to the fund." The Majority Leader and Minority
Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will likely resume negotiations in the 109th
Additional information from
the 108th Congress.
Sources: Seattle Post Intelligencer, Washington Post, Star Tribune,
Sacramento Bee, Greenwire, EPA, EEnews, Congressional Research Service,
The New York Times, SF Gate, The Billings Gazette, Minneapolis
Star Tribune, and the Library of Congress.
Contributed by David R. Millar 2004 AGI/AAPG Fall Semester Intern
and Anne Smart, 2005 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern
Background section includes material from AGI's Update
on Asbestos for the 108th Congress.
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI
Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on June 6, 2005.