When Paul Zygielbaum's stomach first began to bulge, his doctor put him on a diet. It wasn't until he was diagnosed with a tumor that he began to think back to his years at a General Electric power plant in the 1970s, where he worked with equipment that contained asbestos.
Asbestos fibers were used widely for years for their insulating and fire-retardant capabilities, but they have been linked to lung diseases and cancer. Hundreds of thousands of asbestos injury claims have been filed over the past several years, helping to push more than 70 U.S. companies into bankruptcy, including W.R. Grace & Co. and USG Corp..
Now the Senate is considering a measure that would create a $140 billion trust fund to compensate asbestos victims. The fund would consist of contributions by insurance companies and companies facing asbestos lawsuits -- and would halt those lawsuits in return.
To Zygielbaum, a proposed trust fund for asbestos victims is nothing more than "a bailout for greedy, irresponsible corporations" like GE.
"It's the ultimate insult to their victims, who will lose their constitutional right to sue," Zygielbaum said.
But the bill's advocates -- which include other asbestos victims -- say it represents a positive solution to a problem that has clogged the courts and bankrupted businesses while those suffering from asbestos-related illnesses and their families wait in vain for restitution.
"The current system is simply not meeting their needs or treating them fairly," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who supports the bill.
Supporters and opponents of the bill have flooded Capitol Hill to lobby for their cause. The Senate on Tuesday evening voted overwhelmingly to cut off debate on the measure, a move the bill's supporters have hailed as a crucial first step. But opponents were optimistic that they would still be able to block the bill's passage.
Representatives from 10 veterans groups came to Capitol Hill to push for the bill, noting that veterans are disproportionately affected by asbestos-related illnesses, particularly if they worked in shipyards, where asbestos was often used and dust was prevalent, and that they are prohibited from suing the government for compensation.
But critics charge the fund essentially lets big corporations avoid big payouts and say the fund could run out of money and ultimately leave the federal government on the hook. At a press conference sponsored by the trial lawyers, opponents presented 150,000 signatures of victims who opposed the bill.
If the Senate decides that the trust fund represents victims' best shot at compensation, said Zygielbaum, "that's a pretty rotten shot."