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Senators Approach Asbestos Issue from Opposite Sides

Within a week of each other, two Senators, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, decided to take on the issues of asbestos and the quagmire of asbestos-related lawsuits that are beginning to bog down the legal system.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, introduced legislation that would create a $108 billion fund to compensate victims of exposure, with a top payout of $750,000 for victims of mesothelioma. Hatch challenged his colleagues to pass S.1125, the "Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2003," quickly.

"There can be no doubt our country faces an asbestos litigation crisis," Hatch told the Senate when he introduced his bill. Pointing out that over 8,000 companies have been named in asbestos-related lawsuits and noting many have declared bankruptcy, Hatch predicted, "If we don't solve this problem within the next month, I believe we will have many more companies headed toward bankruptcy."

Michael Baroody, executive vice-president of the National Association of Manufacturers and chairman of the Asbestos Alliance Steering Committee, a coalition that includes more than 200 companies, insurers, trade associations and other interested parties, said Hatch's legislation "laid a very solid foundation for meaningful asbestos litigation reform."

Saying the present system "is simply not working for asbestos victims, companies, employees, retirees or shareholders," Baroody added. "We must seize this golden opportunity to resolve the asbestos litigation mess once and for all."

In an obvious attempt to woo support from the AFL-CIO and labor-friendly legislators, Hatch predicted the country could lose "hundreds of thousands of union jobs" due to cutbacks, bankruptcies and closings related to asbestos litigation, a sentiment echoed by Baroody.

However, Hatch's words were lost on AFL-CIO General Counsel Jon Hiatt, who said he was "deeply disappointed" by Hatch's decision to introduce an asbestos bill he called "weak and "a step backward," adding, "It 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."

Hiatt claimed the AFL-CIO entered into negotiations between the government, business interests and insurance companies about an asbestos bill "because the scourge of occupational exposure to asbestos has deeply affected millions of working people and their families." The union, he added, believes that a no-fault system that provides fair compensation, is securely funded, is based on sound medical criteria, and is implemented through a well-designed administrative system "would be of mutual benefit to business and victims alike, as well as to the public at large."

Although Hatch's bill included two Democratic co-sponsors, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., another Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced a bill a week later to ban the use of asbestos entirely.

Murray's legislation, which was first introduced in the 107th Congress, will also authorize additional studies to determine which commercial products still contain asbestos, increase funding for asbestos-related diseases and call for a national Mesothelioma registry to help public health professionals track this deadly disease.

"Like most Americans I thought asbestos had already been banned," Murray said. "While more than 30 other countries have banned asbestos and protected their citizens, the United States still has not. The time for the United States to ban asbestos is long overdue."

The reintroduction of Senator Murray's Ban Asbestos in America Act comes just days after the release of a landmark report commissioned by the EPA, which calls for a ban on the production, manufacture and distribution of asbestos in the U.S. The EPA-commissioned Asbestos Strategies report urges that a ban "be proposed by the Congress, promptly debated and conclusively resolved."

Murray's legislation was co-sponsored by Democratic senators James Jeffords (Vt.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Max Baucus (Mont.) and Mark Dayton (Minn.).

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