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Opponents of asbestos bailout say no victim help

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Opponents of asbestos bill say it helps companies, not victims

By Joe Baker/Daily News staff

PROVIDENCE - Middletown resident Herbert Donovan doesn't have fond memories of the "snowball" fights he used to have with his brother when they were young.

Those battles occurred while the siblings were working with their father, who owned Donovan Oil, replacing coal-fired furnaces with oil furnaces. The "snow" was balled-up asbestos, and Donovan has paid a dear price for those fights.

On Tuesday, in a Statehouse news conference, Donovan, now 68, related the health problems he has endured because of his childhood exposure to asbestos. The news conference was called to criticize pending asbestos-related legislation in Congress.

Entitled the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act, the legislation, in part, sets up a $114 billion asbestos trust fund, purportedly to pay compensation to victims of asbestos-related diseases. But critics say the trust fund allows payments for all costs associated with asbestos claims, including legal costs, and would shortchange victims. The legislation also could end all ongoing negotiations between victims and asbestos companies, said Marti Rosenberg, executive director of Ocean State Action. That would hurt people like Donovan, who have filed legal claims for their injuries but haven't had a court-approved settlement yet.

At the news conference, Rosenberg said the bill was a bailout for giant corporations who should be held accountable for poisoning thousands of Americans. The Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization, estimates that 10,000 people die every year from asbestos-related illnesses. About 212 Rhode Islanders have died of asbestos poisoning since 1979, according to the group's research.

"These are corporate friends of the Republican administration and the Republican Congress," Rosenberg said of the companies like Halliburton and Owens-Corning. "(Supporters of the bill) are doing them a favor and turning their backs on the folks poisoned by asbestos."

On Tuesday, Rosenberg called on Rhode Island Sens. Lincoln Chafee, a Republican, and Jack Reed, a Democrat, to oppose the federal legislation, which could come up for a Senate vote as early as Monday.

"Congress is about to take measures that will significantly harm folks who have been poisoned by asbestos," Rosenberg said. "It will take away their day in court."

Reed spokesman Adam Bozzi said that Reed is "leaning on voting against" the bill if it makes it to the senate floor without changes.

"Senator Reed is concerned with addressing rights of victims and balancing that with legitimate concerns businesses have," Bozzi said.

Debbie Rich, spokeswoman for Chafee, said the senator would vote to bring the bill to the floor for debate, but is not sure if he will support it.

"He is still reviewing concerns (of opponents), and is open to amendments that will improve the bill," Rich said.

Donovan said he worked with his father for about six years until he joined the military in 1957. Besides the asbestos "snowball" fights he would have with his brother, Donovan recalled driving around in his father's truck with open bags of asbestos. The asbestos dust would cover the truck, he said.

"This stuff was dry and would be flying around," Donovan said. "You were breathing this stuff all the time. It was on your clothes. You brought it home. We didn't know anything about (its danger)."

Because it can take victims up to 50 years to develop symptoms, Donovan never knew he had been poisoned until he became ill on the way home from a vacation four years ago. When Donovan went into the hospital for a gall bladder operation, doctors found cancer in his lung. The doctors removed part of his lung, but less than a year later, he developed more problems.

In January 2001, Donovan discovered he could not hold anything with his left hand. He couldn't even put his socks on. Tests indicated he had a brain tumor. Doctors successfully shrunk the tumor.

That October, Donovan began to have seizures and often stumbled while walking. An MRI showed another mass in his brain. Doctors removed about 95 percent of the mass, which turned out to be scar tissue, Donovan said.

Doctors have conclusively linked his medical problems with his childhood exposure to asbestos, Donovan said. Although right now he is "doing pretty good," Donovan said, he is always wondering what is coming next.

"Every time you get a pain in your head, you wonder what it is," Donovan said.

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