World Trade Center Added

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Until now it has been the elephant in the room during Senate debates about asbestos poisoning: What about the vast cloud of dust that blanketed New York City when the World Trade Center collapsed?

Several senators have spent years working to craft a $140 billion fund that could process thousands of injury claims from people sickened by asbestos.

There has been little discussion of whether a new wave of claims may arise from the September 11, 2001 attacks, when a mix of pollutants was spewed over Manhattan as the Twin Towers fell. A new Senate proposal, however, has raised the subject.

Language allowing New Yorkers, along with victims of last year’s Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, to file claims may attract more support for legislation to create the fund but raises new questions about whether the fund will quickly go broke.

“You have an awful lot of people whose lungs are exposed to this material,” said Dr. Stephen Levin of Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. It has been monitoring the health of thousands of rescue workers from the September 11 disaster.

“Asbestos has been found in bulk samples, both on the pile at Ground Zero, as well as in settled dust in buildings and offices. It’s surely around,” Levin said in an interview.

Asbestos, a fire-retardant mineral, was widely used in building insulation and other products until the mid-1970s, and asbestos victims’ groups say the World Trade Center had tons of it. Inhalation of its fibers has been linked to cancer and other diseases, which usually take years to develop.

A Senate bill by Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy would create a $140 billion fund to pay up to $1.1 million to individual asbestos victims. It would be financed by companies that made or sold asbestos products — such as W.R. Grace — and their insurers, who in turn would be shielded from legal liability.

The senators’ stated aim is to unclog courts, stop “abusive” lawsuits and pay claims of the truly ill.

But the fund would mainly pay claims of people exposed to asbestos on the job, such as construction workers. Others who believed their illness was caused by asbestos could seek compensation, but under the bill, a panel of physicians would decide whether they qualified.

9/11 AND HURRICANE DEBRIS

In recent days, language was added to the Senate bill that would let New Yorkers exposed to asbestos in the 9/11 attacks file claims for compensation along with people exposed to building debris in the Gulf Coast hurricanes.

Some experts see the provision as an attempt to win more support for the bill, which failed by one vote in February to scale a procedural hurdle in the Senate.

“More than anything, it’s a political tactic, to increase Democratic support for the fund,” said Andrew Parmentier, analyst at Friedman Billings Ramsey in Arlington, Virginia.

Earlier this year, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat, had sought to add a similar World Trade Center amendment to the asbestos bill. Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu proposed the hurricane language, aides said.

But Crystal Skinner of Susquehanna Financial Group said the possibility of more claims could frighten away fiscal conservatives already worried about the fund’s solvency. They fear the $140 billion fund could run out of money, “leaving the government on the hook for the unpaid claims,” Skinner said.

Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, already a critic of the Specter-Leahy bill, is wary of adding to the fund’s burden.

“Any provision specifically identifying large numbers of claimants to file without demonstrating occupational exposure will, almost certainly, only increase the cost of the trust fund,” he told Reuters.

Senate Judiciary Committee staff said the provision was added to make it clear that 9/11 and hurricane victims could apply for compensation.

But Parmentier said there was a lot of “gray” in the provision. “It will be difficult for anyone to project how many claimants it would add to the fund,” he said. “You could be talking about hundreds of thousands, if not in excess of a million people seeking recourse because of this provision.”

Environmentalists, on the other hand, are skeptical, because the provision says nothing about claims being paid.

“It’s window dressing to get people on board to support the bill, but it won’t do anything to help the victims of the World Trade Center and Katrina,” said Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group.

Wiles noted that some of the first responders were already in court with claims that they became ill working in the toxic ruins of the World Trade Center, but the bill would take away their option of suing for asbestos exposure.