Since Maha started today with a post about one government cover-up, I thought I’d post this item about another. I wrote about it last week on my own blog, but since then this story seems to have failed to penetrate the broader media. I’d hate for it to be missed. – Paul
What’s worse than having your house destroyed and being forced to wait for a FEMA trailer to live in?
Having to live in that FEMA trailer.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency since early 2006 has suppressed warnings from its own field workers about health problems experienced by hurricane victims living in government-provided trailers with levels of a toxic chemical 75 times the recommended maximum for U.S. workers, congressional lawmakers said yesterday.
A trail of e-mails obtained by investigators shows that the agency’s lawyers rejected a proposal for systematic testing of the levels of potentially cancer-causing formaldehyde gas in the trailers, out of concern that the agency would be legally liable for any hazards or health problems. As many as 120,000 families displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita lived in the suspect trailers, and hundreds have complained of ill effects.
Ironic, isn’t it, that we can now add George Bush to the list of leaders who gassed their own people?
It’s clear that, despite the embarrassment of Katrina, FEMA’s morally upstanding, gung-ho, do-what-it-takes-for-the-disaster-victim attitude is just as strong as ever:
On June 16, 2006, three months after reports of the hazards surfaced and a month after a trailer resident sued the agency, a FEMA logistics expert wrote that the agency’s Office of General Counsel “has advised that we do not do testing, which would imply FEMA’s ownership of this issue.” A FEMA lawyer, Patrick Preston, wrote on June 15: “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.”
Of course, they did have reason to expect that, if they did do testing they’d find problems. Because problems existed.
FEMA tested no occupied trailers after March 2006, when it initially discovered formaldehyde levels at 75 times the U.S.-recommended workplace safety threshold and relocated a south Mississippi couple expecting their second child, the documents indicate. Formaldehyde, a common wood preservative used in construction materials such as particle board, can cause vision and respiratory problems; long-term exposure has been linked to cancer and higher rates of asthma, bronchitis and allergies in children.
One man in Slidell, La., was found dead in his trailer on June 27, 2006, after complaining about the formaldehyde fumes. In a conference call about the death, 28 officials from six agencies recommended that the circumstances be investigated and trailer air quality be subjected to independent testing. But FEMA lawyers rejected the suggestions, with one, Adrian Sevier, cautioning that further investigation not approved by lawyers “could seriously undermine the Agency’s position” in litigation.
“Yeah, people are dying, but before we do anything, we really need to check with the lawyers.” Nice. Of course, now FEMA has reversed itself and has ordered tests. Why?
On the eve of yesterday’s hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, FEMA reversed course on the issue and said it has asked federal health officials to help conduct a new assessment of conditions in trailers under prolonged use.
How about that? Oversight. Imagine.
But revelation of the agency’s earlier posture — in documents withheld by FEMA until they were subpoenaed by Congress — attracted harsh bipartisan criticism.
Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) decried what he called FEMA’s indifference to storm victims and said the situation was “sickening.” He said the documents “expose an official policy of premeditated ignorance” and added that “senior officials in Washington didn’t want to know what they already knew, because they didn’t want the legal and moral responsibility to do what they knew had to be done.”
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said FEMA had obstructed the 10-month congressional investigation and “mischaracterized the scope and purpose” of its own actions. “FEMA’s reaction to the problem was deliberately stunted to bolster the agency’s litigation position,” Davis said. “FEMA’s primary concerns were legal liability and public relations, not human health and safety.”
About 66,000 households affected by Katrina remain in the trailers at issue. FEMA has replaced 58 trailers and moved five families into rental units. The Sierra Club in May 2006 reported finding unsafe levels of formaldehyde in 30 out of 32 trailers it tested along the Gulf Coast, and some residents filed a class-action lawsuit last month in federal court in Baton Rouge against trailer manufacturers.
Three trailer residents who testified before the panel described frequent nosebleeds, respiratory problems and mysterious mouth and nasal tumors that they or family members have suffered. They also said veterinarians and pediatricians have warned that their pets and children may be experiencing formaldehyde-related symptoms.
You can see why the FEMA folks might want to make Congress subpoena the records instead of just handing them over. What a swell bunch of folks. They’re still doing a “heckuva job.”