The mesothelioma community will be losing one of its most powerful advocates in 2014 when U.S. Senator Max Baucus of Montana leaves Congress for the last time.
Baucus, who has served the last 36 years in the U.S. Senate, announced earlier this week that he will not be seeking reelection in 2014, surprising even some of his closest supporters.
“It’s an extremely difficult decision,” Baucus told the Missoulian State Bureau in Montana on Tuesday. “The most difficult decision I’ve faced.”
Baucus, 71, is a longtime proponent of tighter regulation for asbestos, the naturally occurring mineral that was once mined in his state. Asbestos hasn’t been banned in the U.S. and it causes mesothelioma cancer in addition to other respiratory illnesses.
He also has been a tireless advocate for the victims of asbestos exposure in Libby, Mont., where W.R. Grace and Co. operated an asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine for nearly 30 years.
For the past seven years, Baucus introduced a resolution in Congress that officially designated the first week of April as Asbestos Awareness Week. It was his way of honoring the 300 residents of Libby who have died from an asbestos-related disease.
Although the mine closed in 1990, Baucus has visited Libby more than 20 times since, pushing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to eventually declare it a public health emergency in 2009 while securing millions of dollars in federal money to help with clean up and future healthcare for residents.
He also convinced numerous White House cabinet secretaries to visit Libby for a closer look at the damages inflicted. During the recent writing of the controversial Affordable Health Care Act, Baucus ensured that three provisions were included specifically to help to victims in Libby.
In his interview with the Missoulian on Tuesday, he listed his work in Libby as one of the proudest accomplishments during his long career in the Senate. In the Billings Gazette this week, his advocacy for asbestos victims in Libby was high on the list of his career highlights.
“I’ve had the greatest privilege of my life representing Montana,” Baucus said. “I want people to know how grateful I am to serve, that here’s a guy who’s honest, straightforward, who did his best. Each of us, when we leave this place, we need to leave it in a better place than when we found it. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”
Although his work for Libby has taken decades of dogged effort, only recently has aid come to help affected residents. Federally funded medical care for those with asbestos-related illnesses started in 2010, stemming from the Public Health Emergency declaration by the EPA.
Earlier this year, he publicly chastised the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) for its lack of progress that created a backlog of cases and delayed government settlements to Libby victims. The head of the agency later promised Baucus her personal attention to the matter.
“There have been so many levels of injustice in Libby, Mont., and this backlog shouldn’t be one of them,” Baucus said. “We can never forget the suffering people in Libby have faced in the name of corporate greed.”
The decision by Baucus to not seek reelection halted campaign fundraising that had already secured $5 million for 2014. It also will allow him to focus more during his final 18 months on the job and on issues that concern him the most.
He said his priorities include addressing the crippling national debt, helping to reform a “dysfunctional” federal tax code, and protecting the outdoors.