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Lawmakers huddled Wednesday to discuss the newest deal-breaker that has emerged in negotiations over proposed asbestos reform legislation. At issue is how the bill will deal with claims involving mixed dust — asbestos and silica. Silica is a dust that causes some of the same harmful effects blamed on asbestos. The core of the legislation is the creation of a $140 billion privately financed, publicly administered trust to pay off corporate asbestos liabilities. Notably, though, the measure requires that asbestos claimants give up their right to sue in return for immediate compensation. The bill also would cap the liability for companies that made or sold products containing the substance. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., was poised to introduce the bill last week, but he held off because he wanted to hold Wednesday’s hearing to further vet the silica matter. At issue among companies with asbestos liabilities is that once they pay into the $140 billion fund, silica could become the new asbestos crisis and they would be exposed to billions more in lawsuits and liabilities. Meanwhile, labor unions and some Democrat lawmakers argue that the asbestos reform legislation as it’s now being fashioned precludes silica claimants from receiving compensation from the fund. It also denies them the right to file a lawsuit against a silica manufacturer, they said. “I have a problem with the language,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. But the California Democrat said she was open to amending the legislation to include more disclosure and possibly fraud sanctions to prevent “double-dipping” of those seeking money from the fund for asbestos and then silica-related illnesses. Without a doubt, there has been a dramatic increase in silica litigation, members of a panel of medical and legal experts testified at Wednesday’s hearing. Some believe there is no medical explanation for the sharp increase. The medical expects testified that while it is theoretically possible for a person to have both diseases, such occurrences are rare. But at least 60 percent of silica plaintiffs have also filed asbestos claims, according to testimony from Lester Brickman, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York. Furthermore, he said, there were only a few hundred silica cases filed from 1975-2001. In 2002, 3,500 cases were filed, and a year later 22,000 cases were filed. “The asbestos crisis would continue under a different name,” Brickman warned. “I see us sitting down and having a silica trust,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. “It’s going to happen.” After the experts testified, Specter ordered labor officials, insurers and companies with asbestos-related liabilities as well as Senate staffers, to meet Wednesday afternoon to continue working to address concerns about silica. Specter said he wants the bill to reach the Senate floor for consideration this month. Copyright �2005 TDD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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