The title of hearings Wednesday (April 28) before the House Energy Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection was, “The Public Sales of Hurricane Katrina/Rita FEMA Trailers: Are they Safe or Environmental Time Bombs?”
The bipartisan consensus on the committee seemed to be leaning heavily toward “environmental time bombs,” but now that the General Services Administration has completed the sale of more than 100,000 of the trailers, it is not clear what Congress can do about it, according to NOLA.com
“We’ve seen that there is an unsafe level of formaldehyde in some of these trailers and I don’t think it’s the wisest thing for the federal government to be selling those and having people live in them and experience more health problems,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., a member of the subcommittee. “We’ve got to figure out a better way to handle this … to see if we can unravel this.”
“Unbelievably, these are the same trailers that made thousands of people ill, some severely ill, from exposure to formaldehyde gases and vapors; young children, elderly people and those with serious respiratory conditions, from asthma to bronchitis, inhaled these vapors over long, extended periods of time,” said Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who chairs the subcommittee. “Am I the only one left scratching his head at this outcome?”
But David Garratt, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) associate administrator for mission support, defended the sales. He said that the mobile homes, park models and travel trailers returned to FEMA after their use along the Gulf Coast and auctioned off this year at bargain prices, met existing industry standards. And, he said, buyers of the travel trailers — which are the ones that posed the most danger and were never intended to provide long-term housing — had to certify that they understood the formaldehyde risk and that the travel trailers “are not intended to be used as housing.”
“Subsequent owners must continue to similarly inform subsequent buyers for the life of the unit,” said Garratt, though some members of the committee seemed dubious that would always happen.
Garratt estimated the cost to the government of storing and maintaining the previously used units had run close to $130 million a year.
While filmmaker Gabe Chasnoff, who produced and directed “Renaissance Village,” a documentary about the formaldehyde trailers, played a clip Wednesday that included then Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff’s declaration at a congressional hearing in 2008 that, “we are out of the trailer business,” Garratt said that is not the case.
Travel trailers are the only models small enough to be placed on people’s properties while they rebuild and, in future disasters, Garratt said, FEMA will rely on a new inventory of trailers built for FEMA to new higher air-quality standards. And, they will only be placed on properties where the repairs can be completed in a about six months.
At the beginning of the hearing, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said the formaldehyde fiasco highlighted the inadequacy of the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to “assess and restrict dangerous chemicals,” power that might have averted “this problem in the first place.”
EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator James Jones testified that EPA’s draft assessment on the dangers of formaldehyde should be released in the next month or so.
But in his testimony, Dr. Corey Hebert, an associate professor of pediatrics at Tulane University Medical Center and the chief medical officer of the Recovery School District, said that in its broadest strokes, the verdict on formaldehyde is already in.
“We know it’s a carcinogen,” said Hebert, who said that the market fails to heed that fact because “this is America, this is capitalism, this is what we do.” Hebert said no trailers should have been resold until any formaldehyde peril was remediated.