Saturday, May 27, 2006

Bill lets 9/11 victims file asbestos fund claims

Bill lets 9/11 victims file asbestos fund claims
By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sponsors of legislation to compensate U.S. asbestos victims said on Friday they had expanded it to include access to payments for people sickened by the mineral as a result of disasters such as hurricanes or the September 11 attacks.

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy announced they were reviving their efforts to get a Senate vote on the bill, which would create a privately financed $140 billion fund to compensate people made ill by work-related exposure to asbestos.

The legislation was shelved in February after it failed to overcome a procedural hurdle in the Senate. Specter, a Republican, and Leahy, a Democrat, said they hoped to bring the expanded version to the Senate floor in the coming months.

"We specifically provided for access to the trust fund for victims who were exposed to asbestos during the attacks on the World Trade Center and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita," Leahy said in a statement issued by his office.

Asbestos fibers were used in building materials, auto parts and other products for decades, but are linked to cancer and other diseases. Hundreds of thousands of injury claims have pushed over 70 companies into bankruptcy.

Specter and Leahy's bill removes from the courts the injury claims filed by people sickened from exposure to asbestos. Instead, the claims would be paid by a fund, to be financed by asbestos defendant companies and their insurers. The highest individual award, $1.075 million, would go to victims of mesothelioma, a lethal form of cancer.

The bill is aimed at compensating work-related asbestos injury claims. Before Specter and Leahy expanded it to include victims of major disasters, the only other major exception allowed claims to be filed by Libby, Montana residents.

Last year, W.R. Grace was charged with conspiring to endanger the Libby community and hide risks from its asbestos-laced vermiculite mine there. Grace denied the charges.

Asbestos victims' groups say the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in the attacks of September 11, 2001 released hundreds of tons of toxic asbestos fibers into the atmosphere, and that many of the rescue and recovery workers who responded are suffering from respiratory ailments.

Questions also have been raised about the dangers to the environment of millions of tons of building debris including asbestos left over from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said on Friday that he was placing the asbestos bill on the Senate calendar, meaning it could come up for a vote some time after Congress takes a recess next week.

In February Frist had demanded assurances that Specter and Leahy had enough votes to overcome procedural hurdles before he would agree to bring the bill back to the floor. But, on Friday, his spokeswoman said Frist was "very supportive of moving the bill forward."

Specter said the amended bill would also tighten medical criteria for filing claims, let existing asbestos bankruptcy trusts pay claims during the fund's startup, and ease the burden on smaller companies required to contribute to the fund.