Although in existence since 1947, the company now known as LTV Steel Company did not enter the steel industry until 1968, when the company purchased a majority interest in the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation of Pittsburgh. Subsequent acquisitions resulted in the company becoming the third largest steel manufacturer in the U.S.
At its height, LTV operated 48 subsidiaries and was a recognized leader in flat-rolled steel, which it supplied to the automotive, appliance and electrical industries. LTV filed for Chapter 11 re-organization asset protection in December of 2000, citing legal and administrative actions either being taken against them or their subsidiaries, or being threatened against them by the EPA and the States of Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Minnesota. Asbestos-related lawsuits had also been filed by individuals, but were barred by Bankruptcy Court as a result of a 1997, $1.3 million settlement.
Asbestos exposure in metal refining operations, steel mills and foundries is widespread. When working with molten liquids, the insulating and fire-retardant properties of asbestos were ideal. Ovens, ladles, steam pipes, boilers, blankets and cloths used to control the cooling of the metal – even protective clothing like gloves, masks, leggings and aprons – all made use of asbestos.
Almost anyone employed at a steel mill risks exposure, including extruding machine operators, welders, furnace operators and machinists. It’s not only the people in the mills who face exposure. Bill Trach, a retired LTV miner and board member of the 1200-member strong SOAR (Steelworkers Organization in Active Retirement), has helped organize screening for his peers, since men in northeastern Minnesota – the Iron Range – are developing mesothelioma (A rare form of asbestos cancer that’s only known cause is exposure to the mineral) at twice the rate that would be expected.
So far, 480 of the groups’ members have been screened; 286 currently have some type of health problem related to asbestos. “Nobody ever told us that you’ve got to be careful and watch out for this thing called asbestos,” says Trach, who remembers watching fellow miners mixing powdered asbestos with water to make an insulating paste.
If what remains of LTV is afforded some protection against liability for asbestos-related expenses by virtue of its Chapter 11 status, other steel companies are not so fortunate. Mittal Steel owns the operations that LTV sold off one year after they filed, and are now faced with an expensive clean-up job. Mittal anticipates spending over $110 million on asbestos and PCB equipment removal and disposal over a 40-year period, $11 million of which they expect to spend in 2007.
While seeking damages for asbestos-related diseases like malignant mesothelioma is always difficult, it is particularly challenging with steel companies. The aggressive consolidation that has been occurring over the last decade in the industry, with its mergers, acquisitions, and bankruptcies, obscures the ultimate responsibility for the disease. Changing ownership usually results in changing insurance carriers, providing further room for argument about financial liability.
The clock is ticking. The long latency period for asbestos-related disease and the long lead time for asbestos clean up mean that new cases and their accompanying asbestosis or mesothelioma lawsuits will continue. More and more people are being diagnosed with mesothelioma and other lung diseases associated with the steel industry in general, and LTV specifically.