Hatch's Asbestos Bill Has Critics, Fans

One day last week Democrats and Republicans unveiled two bills that address two of the lingering effects of asbestos in America.

On May 22 Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., along with six cosponsors, none of whom are Republican, reintroduced legislation requiring EPA to ban asbestos within two years. The same day, Sen. Orrin Hatch, despite opposition from organized labor, pushed ahead with a bill that would establish a $108 billion trust fund to compensate victims of asbestos exposure.

Hatch's bill has two Democratic and four Republican cosponsors as well as the support of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), leader of the Asbestos Alliance, a coalition that includes more than 200 companies, insurers, trade associations and other groups. It would require insurance companies and companies that have been sued to contribute about $45 billion each to the trust fund.

"We think it's a great step forward," commented Jan Amundson, NAM's general counsel. "We know this bill will go through changes before it gets to the Senate floor, and that there are important issues still to be resolved, but Sen. Hatch has provided a critical legislative starting point."

Unresolved issues cited by Amundson included two of the biggest problems the AFL-CIO has with the proposal: concerns over medical criteria used to determine eligibility for benefits, and worries that $108 billion won't be enough money to compensate victims adequately.

"The Hatch bill is merely a vehicle to relieve businesses and insurers of hundreds of billions of dollars of liability while significantly short-changing the asbestos victims of the fair compensation they are due," commented John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, in a statement. The union estimates the Hatch bill's trust fund needs an additional $200 billion to meet future claims.

Sweeney strongly supported Murray's bill banning asbestos. Calling it "long overdue," he asserted that 600,000 workers have filed asbestos claims, and 1.2 million are expected to file future claims.

In remarks by Murray as she introduced her legislation, she said, "like most Americans I thought asbestos had already been banned. I was shocked to learn that asbestos is still being used in products on purpose."

OSHA estimates that 1.3 million workers in construction and general industry face significant asbestos exposure on the job.

While more than 30 other nations have banned asbestos, in 2001, the U.S. consumed 13,000 metric tons of the carcinogenic substance, which is still used in products like gaskets, roofing supplies and brakes.

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