Asbestos Victims to Congress: Stop Fast-Tracking Legislation That Would Violate Victims' Privacy | Commentary

With each new Congress comes a new opportunity to pass legislation that will improve our country and make citizens’ lives better. My husband, the late Rep. Bruce F. Vento, recognized and embraced this opportunity during each of his 12 terms in Congress. I am disappointed to see this is not the case for some this Congress.

On Jan. 26, the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency or FACT Act was reintroduced in the House of Representatives. Far from furthering transparency, this insulting bill obstructs justice for victims dying from asbestos diseases while giving a handout to the very corporations that knowingly poisoned and killed them.

I know firsthand how asbestos can ravage a life and devastate an entire family.

In 2000, Bruce was killed by mesothelioma — an excruciating cancer caused by asbestos, which Bruce was exposed to while working as a laborer as a young man. Despite undergoing an aggressive treatment regimen at the Mayo Clinic that included the surgical removal of a lung, it was not enough. There is no cure for mesothelioma, with most victims surviving only eight to 14 months after diagnosis. My husband lived for just eight and a half months after his diagnosis.

With his death, our country lost a hard-working and humble public servant who dedicated his life to advocating for working people, the disadvantaged and the environment. Bruce’s family lost so much more.

When the FACT Act was considered in the last Congress, I joined two other women who have been affected by the ravages of asbestos in requesting to testify about how this legislation would impact people like us. Our request was callously denied.

One of the women who requested to testify with me, Genevieve Casey Bosilevac, died in May 2014 after courageously battling asbestos disease. She will never have the opportunity to make her voice heard to the legislators attempting to shield the asbestos corporations responsible for her death.

Voices of asbestos victims and their families are critical to this debate because they are the only people who will be directly affected by the FACT Act. This bill would force asbestos bankruptcy trusts to release asbestos victims’ personal information and would add additional procedural burdens that delay compensation for dying victims, meaning many victims will not live long enough to see justice served.

Nearly 15,000 Americans suffocate to death every year from horrific asbestos diseases. The corporations who poisoned them were fully aware of the dangers of asbestos when they placed their deadly product in our homes, schools and workplaces.

In fact, just last summer, the Capitol was forced to evacuate visitors and employees because the insidious material was shaken loose, spewing the toxic dust into the air that even legislators who support the FACT Act breathe.

I urge Congress to tackle the asbestos crisis our country faces by ensuring the asbestos industry is held accountable for exposing Americans to this deadly fiber.

Instead, asbestos corporations and their lobbyists continue their campaign to delay and deny justice for dying asbestos victims. The FACT Act is premised on a disproved myth that fraud is a problem in asbestos-related litigation and that transparency must be required of those suffering from asbestos diseases and their families.

It is a common misconception Congress has banned asbestos — it remains legal in the United States. If Congress is striving to be transparent about asbestos, it should focus on prevention and raising awareness of the risks of asbestos exposure, as well as increasing federal funding for medical research into treatments for asbestos-related diseases.

The FACT Act erodes the decades of work Bruce and so many of you have invested in helping those who could not help themselves. If this bill passes, it will be a serious step back for Americans who expect their elected representatives to advocate on their behalf.

The House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law held a hearing on the bill on Feb. 4. I requested to speak at this hearing on behalf of asbestos victims’ families, but was again denied. Despite the committee’s refusal to listen to the people who would shoulder the burden of the FACT Act, 18 asbestos victims and surviving family members attended to deliver a silent protest.

On Thursday, this offensive bill will be marked up by the Judiciary Committee, and will inevitably make its way to the floor of the House of Representatives. I hope our members of Congress have the courage to hear us out.

Susan Vento, the widow of Rep. Bruce F. Vento, D-N.M., is the director of Outreach for Assumption Catholic Church, St. Paul, and serves on the boards of the Friends of the Mississippi River and the Ramsey County Historical Society. She contributed to the book, “100 Questions and Answers about Mesothelioma” and is a volunteer advocate for mesothelioma patients and their families.

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