Montana's Delegation Should Oppose Asbestos Industry Bill

After spending 13 years and more than $540 million to clean up asbestos in Libby, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has declared the job finished - even though hundreds of homes and buildings in the Lincoln County hamlet remain contaminated.

According to an analysis of federal death records by EWG Action Fund, Lincoln County has the highest mortality rate from asbestos-triggered disease of any county in the nation. From 1999 to 2013, more than 66 per 100,000 deaths in Lincoln County were caused by exposure to asbestos, compared to 4.9 nationwide. During that period, 192 residents of Libby succumbed to asbestos.

Montana's asbestos mortality rate of 7.9 per 100,000 deaths is also well above the national average. In the years analyzed, an estimated 1,135 Montanans died from asbestos exposure.

Overall, 400 Libby residents have perished from asbestos disease and an estimated 1,700 more sickened. To put that into perspective, the current population of the town is 2,691.

The death toll will continue to climb. The latency period from the time of exposure to diagnosis of asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma and asbestosis, can be decades. Once diagnosed, most mesothelioma patients die within months.

The asbestos industry - the corporations that made it or added it to thousands of consumer products before its deadly properties were widely known - is not finished with its victims either.

Congress is considering legislation that would delay or deny compensation from the trust funds asbestos companies set up to pay victims and their families. The so-called FACT Act - H.R. 526 in the House, S. 357 in the Senate - is backed by corporations with billions of dollars in liability for asbestos deaths and disease. Koch Industries, Honeywell International and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others, are collectively spending millions of dollars to push the measure on Capitol Hill.

The bill would require asbestos trusts to file quarterly reports that would severely deplete their already dwindling funds. Officials of the asbestos trusts estimate that complying with the bill would entail up to 20,000 additional hours per year per trust - an onerous and expensive mandate that would inevitably slow the processing of claims and distribution of payments.

In addition, these reports would mean public online disclosure of victims' personal information including name, employment history, medical condition and partial Social Security number, placing victims at heightened risk of identity theft. The House could vote on the measure as early as this month.

Beyond Libby, other groups of Americans that bear an outsize burden of death from asbestos disease include veterans, firefighters and first responders, even school teachers. Asbestos was once widely used by the military in naval vessels. Firefighters and first responders are regularly exposed while putting out fires and responding to emergencies. An unknown number of the nation's schools - most of those built before 1980 - contain asbestos.

Although most Americans believe asbestos was banned decades ago, it remains legal and lethal. Instead of making compensation for death and disease harder for asbestos victims, Congress should take steps to make sure Americans know the places and products contaminated with asbestos and restore funding for asbestos abatement or removal in schools.

Montana's representatives in Congress - Rep. Ryan Zinke, himself a 23-year veteran of the Navy, and Sens. John Tester and Steve Daines - should stand with victims and against this scheme designed to allow corporations to escape responsibility for their actions. These corporations should be ashamed, and so should any member of Congress who votes for this bill.

This column originally appeared as an op-ed in The Western News on December 8, 2015