Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, tens of thousands of families displaced by the storms were housed in some 120,000 trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). But testing done by the Sierra Club found that an alarming number of the trailers were contaminated with formaldehyde, a potential carcinogen that has led to a host of health problems and at least one death. Now, a congressional hearing has shown that the FEMA mishandled citizen complaints about toxins in the trailers and suppressed warnings from its own field workers about the problem.
Former Army officer and Mississippi Sierra Club volunteer Paul Stewart, who testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on July 19, was housed in one of the FEMA trailers. He and his wife both got sick shortly after moving in, prompting him to do his own testing in March 2006. "Paul tipped us off, and after that the Sierra Club really jumped on this issue," says Mississippi Chapter Vice Chair Becky Gillette, above, who headed up trailer testing for the Sierra Club's Gulf Coast Environmental Resoration Task Force. "When Paul's story came out on TV that his trailer was over the limit and other people were having problems, we figured we should test more trailers to find out how widespread it was."
In May 2006 the Sierra Club reported finding unsafe levels of formaldehyde in 30 of 32 FEMA trailers it tested. Since then, the Club has continued to do testing using state-of-the-art devices like the sensor installed by Sierra Club volunteer Carol McGilvery, below, in the bedroom of her FEMA trailer. (She has since moved out.) Overall, 88 percent of trailers tested were over the limit, and the Club has continued to hold press conferences to keep the issue in the media spotlight. About 60,000 families continue to live in the suspect trailers.
The congressional hearing resulted from the House Oversight Committee demanding records from FEMA, which delayed responding for months but eventually gave over papers that were a major indictment of the agency's handling of the situation. The Sierra Club worked closely with the Committee to encourage the problems to be brought to light.
Club volunteers submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to FEMA to get results of EPA testing prompted by early reports of illness among trailer residents. "This was important because FEMA had EPA do the testing, but then didn't release the results," Gillette says, "so we figured something was bad." Several trailer residents also filed a class action suit this June in federal court in Baton Rouge against the trailer manufacturers.
According to congressional lawmakers, FEMA's own tests of trailers in early 2006 found formaldehyde levels 75 times the recommended maximum for U.S. workers, after which the agency stopped conducting tests. An e-mail trail obtained by federal investigators shows that FEMA lawyers subsequently suppressed warnings from its own field workers about health problems experienced by people housed in the trailers. FEMA's general counsel advised agency officials against further testing for fear the agency would be held legally responsible for health problems among trailer occupants. The Los Angeles Times reported that one FEMA attorney wrote on June 15, 2006, "Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them."
Later that same month, a man was found dead in his FEMA trailer in Slidell, Louisiana, after complaining about formaldehyde fumes. A conference call among six federal agencies recommended that trailer air quality be subjected to independent testing, but FEMA lawyers rejected the idea, saying further investigation could undermine the agency's position in litigation.
At the July 19 hearing, FEMA Director R. David Paulison denied setting agency policy based on legal considerations. Paulison had maintained that formaldehyde levels FEMA found in the trailers met standards used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for its manufactured homes—provided there is adequate ventilation. But at the hearing, he apologized to trailer residents, acknowledging that ventilating the trailers is often impractical given the Gulf Coast's heat and humidity. Representative Henry Waxman, who chaired the hearing, said FEMA's reaction to the problem was deliberately stunted to bolster the agency's litigation position. The sentiment was echoed by the House Oversight Committee's top Republican, Thomas Davis of Virginia, who said FEMA failed to get the information they needed and act to prevent the crisis.
Gillette credits Sierra Club volunteer Mary C. DeVany of Vancouver, Washington, an industrial hygenist advising the Club, with giving key expert testimony that formaldehyde levels in the trailers were 400 times the normal limit for year-round exposure set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Mary clearly laid out that even when FEMA tried to cook the books by airing out the trailers for three weeks before doing the tests, they still came in well over the limit," Gillette says. She also praised Chris Smith, a former media staffer with the Club, for going the extra mile to publicize the issue when it first came to light.
"This very serious problem might not have have been exposed without the attention and resources of the Sierra Club," Gillette says. The Club also funded travel to Washington, D.C., for victims and expert witnesses. "Without them, we wouldn't have had the hearing and be where we are today."
Photos used with permission.