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WASHINGTON — The plastics industry is expected to pursue legislation in this session of Congress that could all but free ``deep-pocket'' resin companies from liability in lawsuits against medical device manufacturers.

Though last year's liability reform effort slipped on the ink of President Clinton's veto signature, the cause will be undertaken this year with renewed vigor.

Lobbying for composites-related interests, however, will be far tougher in 1997, in part due to popular interest among members to balance the budget and cut ``discretionary spending.''

``Congress has had no problem finding funding for [the National Institutes of Health], but most members of Congress don't relate to long-term science the same way they do to medical issues of immediate interest to the voters,'' said one lobbyist who asked not to be identified.

Packaging also may be a busy legislative topic for plastics interests. Richard Thornburg, director of government affairs for the Flexible Packaging Association in Washington, said the Environmental Protection Agency's proposal for cutting airborne particulates may be of great concern.

The new rules could reduce the allowable size of particles released into the air from 10 microns to 2.5.

``Some areas of the U.S. now in compliance would not be, and the costs to gain compliance will be astronomical because of what it will take to even begin to move the needle into the compliance zone,'' Thornburg said.

``We are afraid that unless EPA backs off this attempt, stationary sources [of pollution] will be hit upon again.''

One hope would be Congress' invocation of a 1995 law that allows it to overturn regulations with which it disagrees, so long as the president goes along, he said.

``It is possible that both houses of Congress could say EPA's law is too stringent, but it faces the threat of presidential veto,'' Thornburg said.

Thornburg also predicted the reintroduction of the claim that synthetic organic chemicals in the environment are the cause of human endocrine disruption. Some of the chemicals are used in the production of plastics.

But of paramount interest to the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. will be a proposal that would free a wider range of resins for medical use. That plan also will be sought by the Medical Device Manufacturers Association.

In addition, lawyer Jerry Heckman, longtime SPI Washington representative, said, ``I think we should be able to bring about enactment of an amendment to the food laws that will permit the substitution of a sound, pre-market notification system for packaging materials to replace the present, unduly complex clearance process.''

Both SPI and MDMA have worked for years to curb liability on resin and component makers on the claim that lawsuits naming plastics makers sometimes kept them from using the best resins for the job.