Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate last week that would require companies to file annual reports disclosing information about any asbestos-containing products to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The bill, called the Reducing Exposure to Asbestos Database (READ) Act, was introduced by Durbin on March 10 and was co-sponsored by Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).
“Every year, far too many Americans and their families suffer the deadly consequences of asbestos exposure," Durbin said in a press release. "The goal of this legislation is simple: increase the transparency and accessibility of data informing the public about where asbestos is known to be present. This information will increase awareness, reduce exposure, and help save lives."
President Ronald Reagan signed a similar bill into law in 1988 called the Asbestos Information Act, which required manufacturers and processors of asbestos-containing material to make a one-time report providing information about their products to the EPA.
Those reports were published in the Federal Register. Because the law pre-dated the Internet, Durbin said his bill modernizes Reagan’s law by making the reports easily accessible on a searchable online database.
The READ Act would require annual reports, rather than a one-time filing, and would also require companies to provide information disclosing any publicly-accessible locations in which the products were known to be present in the past year.
Further, Durbin said his bill would provide people with a transparent, accessible and up-to-date database.
In his release, Durbin stated that asbestos-related diseases are to blame for roughly 10,000 deaths in the U.S. every year, and the READ Act would help Americans avoid asbestos exposure and would prevent future asbestos-related diseases.
While Darren McKinney of the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) agreed that mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses are terrible diseases for victims to endure, he said Durbin’s statement is exaggerated for political purposes.
“This is a fiction that he has created on behalf of the plaintiff’s bar to which he owes much,” said McKinney, ATRA communications director.
In fact, Durbin's election campaigns have been supported by the asbestos bar, and in particular, attorneys with the Simmons firm of Alton.
Last May, Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Simmons’ home for a fundraiser for Durbin and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. In Durbin's last two elections, Simmons attorneys have given him $136,185.
McKinney said that Durbin's proposal fails to acknowledge that asbestos, which is not banned in the U.S., is already heavily regulated by OSHA and the EPA. In fact, the EPA already requires companies to report production of asbestos-containing products under the Asbestos Information Act.
McKinney said the READ Act would have been useful 40 years ago if today's technology existed, but he added that “virtually no one” is exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos now unless a catastrophic accident involving old structures creates heavy dust levels.
McKinney said Durbin’s bill would only increase the number of “phony” asbestos lawsuits. He called the proposal a “means by which to gin up more asbestos lawsuits by clients of the plaintiff’s bar that haven’t even necessarily been exposed to asbestos.”
“Durbin’s legislation is nothing more than a boost to asbestos industry," he said, "as it (asbestos) should be, naturally, slowly winding down. This is a way to stir up a whole new nest of cases.”
McKinney said that the READ Act will “die a nearly instant death,” but he believes it was employed to divert attention from the asbestos fraud recently unveiled in the Garlock Sealing Technologies bankruptcy proceeding as well as with the arrest of New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
In Garlock, North Carolina bankruptcy judge George Hodges concluded that plaintiff’s lawyers withheld evidence in order to escalate judgments against the gasket manufacturer.
As for Silver, he was indicted last month for participating in an asbestos kickback scheme involving a New York doctor who referred cases to Silver who was employed by the prominent Weitz & Luxenberg firm. Silver is alleged to have secretly steered state funding to the doctor in exchange for lucrative asbestos client referrals.
“The plaintiff’s bar is rightly worried about its racket being curtailed,” McKinney said.
McKinney also suggested that Durbin’s proposed legislation could be intended as a “trade-off” or “talking point” for the Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency (FACT) Act. The goal of the FACT Act is to require asbestos bankruptcy trusts to release information on those seeking compensation due to asbestos exposure in quarterly reports, including detailed information regarding the receipt and disposition of claims for asbestos-related injuries.
McKinney said that when it comes time to make a decision on the FACT Act, Durbin could propose dropping the READ Act in exchange for dropping the FACT Act.