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.
A New Orleans jury took less than three hours on Monday (March 29) to reject a man’s claim that toxic levels of formaldehyde in a FEMA trailer where he lived for two years after Hurricane Katrina caused a benign throat tumor and made him vomit blood, according to the Courthouse News Service.
The eight-person jury cleared trailer manufacturer Forest River Inc., based in Elkhart, Ind.
The jury found that the trailer in which 39-year-old Lyndon Wright lived was not “unreasonably dangerous” in construction or design. And it found that Shaw Environmental Inc. of Baton Rouge was not negligent in installing the trailer.
It’s the second straight win for trailer manufacturers. In September 2009, a jury cleared Gulf Stream Coach Inc., which supplied FEMA with emergency travel trailers, of similar claims.
FEMA, which provided more than 140,000 travel trailers to Katrina refugees, was not a defendant in this trial, as was originally expected. Before the trial started, U.S. District Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt ruled that Wright did not file paperwork alleging personal injury within the proper time frame, which exempted FEMA from participation in the trial.
Frank D’Amico Jr., one of Wright’s attorneys, said the verdict was disappointing, but that it doesn’t mean anything for cases awaiting trial.
“Every case turns on its own,” he said.
Forest River attorney Ernest Geiger called the verdict is “a victory for common sense.”
In his closing arguments, Geiger said that in Wright’s tax returns for 2007 and 2008 he claimed 10,000 business miles, and his earnings rose over the two years.
“Look how much he was working,” Geiger said, adding that if Wright had been as sick as he claimed, it would have affected his ability to work.
“Shaw is obviously very pleased with the verdict, which we consider to be validation for the work Shaw conducted for those affected by Hurricane Katrina,” Shaw spokeswoman Gentry Brann said in a statement.
D’Amico said in his closing argument that since FEMA does not know how to build a trailer, it relied on Forest River to make a quality product, and that Forest River acknowledged that it does not build products for the long term, only for temporary housing.
As the trial opened two weeks ago, Judge Engelhardt told the jury which “undisputed facts” all parties agreed to be true. Among them was that FEMA had provided 143,000 travel trailers to Katrina refugees; that of those 143,000 Forest River manufactured 5,000 units; and that Forest River used only low formaldehyde emitting (LFE) wood in its travel trailers.
Formaldehyde is considered a known human carcinogen by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Wright’s lawyers had asked that Wright be awarded $65,000 in future medical expenses and an unspecified amount for pain and suffering.
A third trial against FEMA-contracted travel trailer manufacturers is scheduled for May.
Two major liability trials begin today in federal court in New Orleans.
The claims of toxic formaldehyde emissions from FEMA-supplied trailers for hurricane refugees, and hazardous emissions from Chinese-made drywall, are both the second in a series of “test” trials of multidistrict litigation, in which plaintiffs and defendants change but the complaints remain essentially the same — long-term health problems from hazardous chemicals, and property damage in the drywall complaints, according to the Courthouse News Service.
Hundreds of thousands of such liability suits resulted from the chaotic rebuilding process after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Building materials are blamed for widespread illnesses caused by breathing the toxic fumes.
In addition, the Chinese-made drywall has been blamed for corroding copper and other metal surfaces, causing problems with wiring and plumbing, and ruining household appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines and dryers.
Tatum and Charlene Hernandez are plaintiffs in the Chinese drywall trial; Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin is the lead defendant. U.S. District Judge Eldon E. Fallon will preside over that bench trial.
Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt will preside over the jury trial in the FEMA trailer trial brought by Lyndon Wright against trailer manufacturer Forest River Inc. and the environmental testing firm Shaw Environmental.
The United States will also be a defendant in this trial, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Because of a last-minute decision by Judge Engelhardt last summer, FEMA was not included as a defendant in the first FEMA trailer trial against Gulf Stream Coach Inc., Nappanee, Ind.
The complaint to be tried beginning this week, filed in March 2009, claims Forest River supplied trailers to FEMA that contained toxic levels of formaldehyde.
Forest River and other manufacturers supplied tens of thousands of trailers for emergency use after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
The trailer makers subsequently faced lawsuits from hurricane victims who said the formaldehyde made them sick.
Company lawyers say the trailers were safe.
On Sept. 24, a jury took just four hours to clear Gulf Stream Coach of such accusations from a family that occupied a trailer made by the company
Galveston (Texas) City Council members Thursday (Jan. 28) extended the deadline through July 9 for Hurricane Ike victims living in Federal Emergency Management Agency mobile homes and privately owned trailers and recreational vehicles.
The move came despite reservations about allowing displaced residents to live in those temporary structures into a second hurricane season. Hurricane season officially begins June 1, according to the Galveston County Daily News.
Galveston County already had extended the deadline from March 12 to July 9 after FEMA granted the state’s request to extend the deadline a month ago.
More than 100 families still are living in FEMA trailers in Galveston, and scores of other islanders still are living in private trailers as they await federal disaster recovery dollars to repair and rebuild their houses.
Families still living in FEMA mobile homes are on a fast track for getting their houses repaired under the recovery program funded by $104 million in round-one community development block grant money, but the construction likely won’t start until April, city officials have said.
The new deadline also applies to temporary storage units.
“As you know, I have expressed great concern for the safety of these units due to the presence of formaldehyde. While I continue to believe that these units should not be used for human habitation, I do believe that they could be of some benefit on a short-term, limited basis if the appropriate safeguards are provided,” Thompson wrote in the letter.
International medical and search-and-rescue teams, for example, might use the trailers for short-term shelter or as emergency clinics for the treatment of minor injuries, Thompson suggested. But he disapproved of any prolonged occupation of a trailer by victims requiring a place to live.
“However, given the potential for adverse health affects when used as more than short-term shelter, I would be gravely concerned about distributing these units to the people of Haiti for use as housing. This country’s immediate response to help in this humanitarian crisis should not be blemished by later concerns over adverse health consequences precipitated by our efforts,” Thompson warned.
FEMA did not return calls from Homeland Security Today inquiring about the safety of the trailers for human habitation.
Earlier last week, Thompson objected to FEMA’s public auction of mobile homes and trailers used by victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Thompson acknowledged that FEMA was attempting to recoup funds lost in the mismanagement of the trailers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005. The Bush administration, Thompson accused, did not assess needs before purchasing trailers, paid too much for standard trailers, stored trailers improperly and paid too much to maintain and secure them after they were used.
But despite good intentions, the decision by FEMA to auction more than 100,000 of the trailers through the General Services Administration could pose a threat to public health, the congressman protested.
“The mass disposal of these trailers through public auction is troubling. Although marked with legal disclaimers, it is no secret that these trailers may contain mold, formaldehyde and other potentially hazardous substances. A legal disclaimer will not prevent harm to a child who inhales formaldehyde or mold,” he stated.
Thompson requested that FEMA suspend the auction and sell only small numbers of trailers to government or non-profit organizations that could rehabilitate the trailers to make them safe for long-term habitation.
FEMA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a study on Feb. 14, 2008, that determined the temporary housing units contained unhealthy levels of formaldehyde. The CDC concluded that a random sampling of the trailers revealed average levels of formaldehyde of about 77 parts per billion (ppb) in each unit. Exposure to such levels of formaldehyde, intended to keep the trailers clean and preserved, could increase risks of cancer and respiratory sicknesses, CDC warned.
The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) is quietly promoting the idea that unused travel trailers set to be auctioned by the General Services Administration (GSA) be sent to Haiti to house those left homeless by last week’s tragic earthquake.
Coon outlined the association’s efforts in a note to RVIA board members on Monday (Jan. 18), and told RVBUSINESS.com today that RVIA lobbyists are contacting the appropriate federal agencies to pitch the idea.
”Our lobbyists are checking with the appropriate agencies,” said Coon, who added that the RV industry stands ready to provide traditional RVs for housing in Haiti.
Originally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) purchased the trailers for emergency housing after the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes. Tens of thousands went unused and remain in storage lots.
”We are just trying to make government officials aware that there are a lot of FEMA trailers in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana that could be used by the poor people in Haiti,” said RVIA President Richard Coon told RVBUSINESS.com.
One problem in sending FEMA units to Haiti is the negative publicity garnered by lawsuits alleging that recipients of the trailers following hurricanes Katrina and Rita were harmed by high levels of formaldehyde in a handful of trailers.
One lawsuit already has been decided in favor of Gulf Stream Coach Inc., while Fleetwood Industries Inc. settled a second one. Others are still in federal court in Louisiana. ”I’m sure the government will be thinking about all the bad publicity they might get,” Coon said.
He said federal officials have yet to respond to the idea.
The GSA on Friday announced that it was delaying for two weeks the planned auction of 15,000 trailers that are stored in Hope, Ark.
”There are units down there that the Haitians could use for housing and so could the people who are going down there to help,” Coon said.
”I’m sure the Haitians would love to have an RV or a (FEMA) temporary housing unit,” Coon said. He noted that travel trailers and recreational park trailers now are built to meet strict formaldehyde standards set by the California Air Resources Board (CARB).
”The RV industry stands ready if anyone wants to buy more travel trailers,” he said.
The Recreational Park Trailer Industry Association (RPTIA) is warning campground and RV park operators to be wary of investing in used park trailers that are being offered for sale by the General Services Administration (GSA).
Some 2,000 park trailers, which were built for the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) for use as temporary housing for hurricane evacuees, are being auctioned by the GSA. However, these units have not been inspected by RPTIA and could pose various liability risks to park operators, according to a news release.
“Park operators should think twice before purchasing these used FEMA units,” said William Garpow, RPTIA executive director, “It may not be in their best interest to purchase these units with the idea of using them as a rental product.”
In addition to lacking an RPTIA inspection seal, many of the FEMA units also have visible sustained water and mold damage as a result of improper installation and maintenance by FEMA contractors. Others may have water damage that remains out of sight.
“While the cost of these FEMA units being auctioned by the GSA looks like a financial winner, the possibility of losing a liability case over a public safety issue can place a long-term dent into your bottom line that could be very painful,” Garpow said.
Mike Atkinson, facilities development manager for Billings, Mont-based Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), said KOA guidelines prohibit its franchisees from investing in park trailers that do not have an RPTIA inspection seal.
Garpow said FEMA contracts to purchase recreational park trailers for emergency housing units required manufacturer to be responsible for verifying that these units were built to the requirements of the ANSI A119.5 Standard. However, any inspection process that took place to verify compliance before the units are placed into service were minimal at best. “FEMA encourages these contractors to be members of the RPTIA and also encourages them to use the RPTIA inspection program, but it stops short of making either of these a contractual requirement,” Garpow said.
RPTIA members, on the other hand, pledge as a condition of their membership that they will construct any recreational park trailers they build to be in conformance with the ANSI A119.5 Standard. The RPTIA inspection program to verify the pledge mandates a certification inspection as a pre-condition for a manufacturer’s membership and also imposes at least four unannounced verification inspections annually to confirm, to the association, that the member firm still has the capability to build units meeting the standard as the manufacturer pledged. All RPTIA inspections are accomplished by RPTIA independent third party agencies, who typically are the same firms used by government agencies to verify compliance with laws and regulations that cover public safety requirements.
For more information, contact Garpow at (770) 251-2672 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The federal government is holding its fourth auction in as many weeks on a large group of travel trailers left in the Pine Belt area in Mississipi following Hurricane Katrina, according to the Hattiesburg American.
The United States General Services Administration has put a single lot of 488 trailers at the Purvis, Miss., staging area up for bid. The auction ends at 5 p.m. Friday.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials had estimated that heading into the fall, about 30,000 trailers used as temporary housing in the aftermath of Katrina in 2005 remained at five, Pine Belt staging areas: two in Lumberton and one in Purvis in Lamar County; Carnes in Forrest County; and Columbia in Marion County.
Weekly auctions started in late September to reduce the inventory, and were scheduled to rotate through all five locations. Over the past three weeks, GSA had sold 1,461 trailers from the staging areas in Lumberton and Carnes.
For more info: http://gsaauctions.gov/gsaauctions/aucindx.
Now the acres of trailers that sprung up in staging areas across the Pine Belt are beginning to be gleaned in large swaths at a time.
The U.S. General Services Administration is conducting a public, online auction of 483 travel trailers from the 2,708 trailers in the Carnes staging area near Brooklyn. The sale of the travel trailers will close Friday, according to the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion Ledger.
It is believed to be the largest, single lot to be sold at one time in Mississippi.
“We’re trying it out to see how it goes,” said Alicia Paris, an administrative assistant who transferred from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Gulfport office to help with trailer sales. “We’re hoping that things run smoothly, that they’re sold and gone.
“The faster we do, the more we save the government.”
The trailers, mobile homes and later, cottages, were used as temporary housing for those whose homes were ravaged by the storm. At the peak, more than 43,000 households in Mississippi required housing assistance from FEMA.
That program officially ended in May, and according to the agency’s figures in late August, the number of Mississippi households still in temporary housing had dwindled to 441.
Mississippi is home to five staging areas, where trailers were first brought for distribution after the storm and then became storage areas as people found permanent housing and no longer needed them.
A 70-acre stretch in Purvis served as the hub, before spokes were added in Lumberton and Hickory Grove in Lamar County, Carnes in Forrest County and Columbia in Marion County.
Most were sold in small lots the first few years, usually fewer than 100 at a time. But sales stalled in the summer of 2007 when health concerns were raised because of formaldehyde used in the trailers’ construction.
The sales resumed in earnest this year.
Paris described the lot being sold at Carnes as “7′s,” which means all are repairable and can be used as temporary housing.
An estimated 33,000 to 35,000 trailers or mobile homes remain in the five staging areas, including about 12,000 near Columbia.
Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series of reports on the trial underway in New Orleans involving Gulf Stream Coach Inc. and its production of emergency living units for Gulf Coast hurricane victims in 2005. In the absence of mainstream media coverage at this point, we are relying for now on reports like this one from the Courthouse News Service, a newswire for lawyers generated by a network of correspondents who provide daily comprehensive reports on new appellate rulings, new legislation and new civil cases from the federal and state courts with the most prolific and weighty litigation.
A FEMA worker testified on Tuesday (Sept. 22) that he was certain he had left a flier about the dangers of formaldehyde at the trailer of lead plaintiff Alana Alexander. But Alexander’s attorney then cited an exhibit — FEMA employee Stanley Larson’s tally sheet — in which Alexander’s trailer was marked as uninhabited. Unoccupied trailers did not receive FEMA’s July 2007 memo.
The tally sheet bolstered Alexander’s Monday testimony that she did not get the flier in either 2006 or 2007, despite FEMA’s insistence that it gave the information to every trailer inhabitant and applicant, according to the Courthouse News Service.
Gulf Stream Coach Inc. and Fluor Enterprises are defendants in the first federal trial on claims of personal injuries from toxic formaldehyde fumes in FEMA trailers.
Gulf Stream made the trailers and Fluor distributed and maintained them on a FEMA contract after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
One hundred and twenty thousand people were housed in the trailers after their homes were destroyed in the 2005 storms. Before the last of Gulf Stream Coach’s 50,000 trailers left the lot, formaldehyde toxicity in trailers had already made national news.
Sierra Club tests on trailers in April 2006 showed high levels of formaldehyde in about 88% of the FEMA trailers. In May 2006 the Sierra Club issued a media report on its findings.
Of the 33 trailers tested for formaldehyde in Louisiana and Mississippi, the Sierra Club said only two tested at or below the 0.1 parts per million safety limit recommended by the EPA and the American Lung Association. Several trailers were more than three times over the limit.
In response, Gulf Stream Coach in 2006 submitted statements on formaldehyde to include in fliers to be given to trailer residents. Alexander should have received a notice, but testified that she did not.
Symptoms of formaldehyde toxicity include watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat, bloody nose, coughing, wheezing, nausea and rashes.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reported that people with long-term exposure to formaldehyde may suffer from headaches, depression, fatigue and memory loss.
Long-term exposure to formaldehyde can cause cancer.
The fliers that FEMA made and distributed in 2006 did not mention the risk of cancer due to long-term exposure to formaldehyde. The fliers were rewritten, reprinted and redistributed one year later, during July 2007.
Alexander testified on Monday that had she known that the formaldehyde in her Gulf Stream Coach trailer increased her children’s risk of cancer, she would not have stayed in her FEMA trailer.
Gulf Stream Coach representatives testified last week that the company conducted formaldehyde tests on trailers as early as April 2006, but did not make the results public.
In June 2006, Kevin Souza, one of FEMA’s top housing officials, wrote an e-mail to FEMA attorney Patrick Preston: “Has the agency conducted our own testing of the units?” Souza asked. “If not, we need to do so ASAP and put this issue to rest or remove people from harm. I don’t want to rely on non-fed testing.”
The next day Preston replied: “Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. While I agree that we should conduct testing we should not do so until we are fully prepared to respond to the results. Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.”
Souza testified via video on Tuesday. Plaintiffs’ attorney Justin Woods asked why Souza and FEMA did not use the Sierra Club’s findings from April 2006 testing.
“To be honest,” Souza said, “I wasn’t sure how testing was being performed, or how biased it would be,” coming from Sierra Club.
Souza expressed a desire to reach out to the federal scientific community for the tests, and said that the Environmental Protection Agency had warned that certain measures were required to get reliable results.
“The United States of America through the Federal Emergency Management Agency” is listed as a defendant in the 34-page federal complaint, but between videotaped testimonies on Tuesday, Judge Kurt Engelhardt announced, “The U.S. is a defendant in future cases, but it is not a defendant in this case.”
The Sierra Club’s media release in 2006 warned that formaldehyde is colorless, has a strong smell, and that prolonged exposure can cause lung cancer, nose cancer and throat cancer.
“‘It isn’t enough to have lost your home, but then you are placed inside a trailer that can literally poison you,’” Becky Gillette, co-chairwoman of the Mississippi Sierra Club said on the Sierra Club’s statement. “‘This is another example of the government purchasing material that is substandard and dangerous, made by companies that put profit above people.’”
Subsequent testing by the Environmental Protection Agency in October 2006 and then by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2007 confirmed high levels of formaldehyde.
In early 2008 FEMA and the CDC announced that levels of toxic gas in the FEMA trailers were high enough to warrant moving all residents out of the trailers before the hot summer, when formaldehyde leaking is worse due to high temperatures and humidity.
The trial, which finished its seventh day Tuesday, is expected to conclude Thursday afternoon.