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Associated Press Future of House bill uncertain

KALISPELL - The U.S. House is not likely to act on the House version of an asbestos victims' compensation bill before the congressional Easter break on April 14, says an aide to Rep. Rick Hill, R-Mont.

The holdup is a committee report that hasn't been filed yet, said Larry Akey, Hill's chief of staff. The bill, HR 1283, passed the House Judiciary Committee last month.

Montana Sens. Conrad Burns and Max Baucus remain opposed to the legislation that would change the way asbestos-exposure claims are handled by the legal system.

The legislation has received considerable attention in Montana since news reports last fall detailed how hundreds of Libby residents were ill or have died as a result of asbestos exposure from the former W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine.

The bill is being pushed by the asbestos industry as a way to speed up the handling of claims by victims of asbestos exposure. Critics have said the bill, which requires claimants to meet certain medical criteria before they can sue, would violate rights of victims.

Hill withdrew his co-sponsorship of the legislation two weeks ago, but is still evaluating the bill and a report from the McGarvey, Heberling, Sullivan & McGarvey law firm in Kalispell that analyzes the medical criteria in the proposed legislation.

Attorney Roger Sullivan, who represents many of the plaintiffs in lawsuits against Grace, said the medical eligibility criteria in the current version of the bill still excludes 73 percent of 125 Libby claimants.

"Not all of the dead made it through the gantlet," Sullivan said. "Only one of four people dead of asbestos lung cancer made it through. The other three do not meet the bill's minimum exposure requirement."

Burns said he won't support the bill as is. He also withdrew his co-sponsorship a few weeks ago.

Matt Raymond, press secretary for Burns, said the likelihood of the measure passing the House and ever reaching the Senate is shaky. Even if it does pass the House, the bill may not be taken up by the Senate before Congress adjourns late this year, he said.

Burns wants the bill written in such a way that it does not apply to people injured by exposure to asbestos in its raw form, like Libby residents, Raymond said.

Al Smith, director of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association, said the public might assume that asbestos victims have nothing to fear at this point, but that would be an erroneous assumption.

"Participation in the new bureaucracy is still mandatory under the amended bill," Smith said. "If it truly is such a good deal, you have to ask why it isn't completely voluntary."

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