Investigation of FEMA Toxic Trailers Included in Homeland Security Bill
U.S. Senators McCaskill (D-MO), Obama (D-IL), Pryor (D-AK), Landrieu (D-LA), Lieberman (D-CT), Kerry (D-MA), and Johnson (D-SD) yesterday secured Senate passage of a measure in the 2008 Homeland Security spending bill that would require comprehensive testing of Hurricane Katrina trailers that may contain toxic levels of formaldehyde, and a full investigation on why federal authorities refused to test occupied trailers for the gas after multiple complaints and incidents were reported from hurricane victims.
The amendment that was included in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Appropriations bill that the Senate approved last night, was in response to revelations that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) decided against testing occupied trailers for high levels of formaldehyde in FEMA-provided trailers, despite complaints since March 2006 from hurricane victims living in them. According to FEMA, many trailer residents complained of frequent coughing, bloody noses, respiratory disorders and, in at least one case, reported a possible death from potential overexposure to the invisible gas, and reports indicate that FEMA continued to deny there was a problem for over a year.
A recent House oversight hearing revealed that the agency's Office of General Counsel recommended that FEMA not test for formaldehyde, and ordered that all decisions about testing trailers and getting information out to disaster victims about possible formaldehyde problems be run through their office first, giving the appearance that FEMA was putting potential legal liability ahead of public safety concerns. While FEMA officials have acknowledged they made mistakes and will take "swift action," the fact that the first reports to FEMA of toxic fumes occurred in March 2006 and they're only acting now indicate that Congress should make sure this situation is immediately and adequately addressed.
As a result, the Amendment would:
* Direct DHS Inspector General to investigate the decisions made regarding the trailer/formaldehyde problem. The IG will report their findings and their recommendations to Congress
* FEMA must, with input from the Centers for Disease for Control and the Environmental Protection Agency, design a program to scientifically test a representative sample of the trailers and mobile homes for formaldehyde, and then have both short and long term testing performed. This is in contrast with the reported "sniff" tests that some FEMA workers conducted that only involved inhaling to see if they could smell the gas.
* FEMA must report the results of the tests to Congress and, if it determines there are health risks, tell Congress their plan for relocating or assisting the impacted residents and their plan for selling or transferring surplus trailers.
* Within 15 days of enactment, FEMA must report to Congress on what action it has taken regarding their response to concerns over formaldehyde exposure. This report will include any disciplinary action the agency has taken on those involved in the decisions made on testing.
* Within 30 days of enactment, FEMA must ensure that the training practices for customer service employees, legal counsel, and other employees are updated as appropriate in relation to addressing the health concerns of recipients of FEMA assistance.
"We can take two attitudes in government. We can take the attitude that we want to try to look good or we can take the attitude that we're here to serve the public," Senator McCaskill said. "This not only sets an important precedent for accountability, but frankly, this Congress has a solemn obligation to make sure we get to the bottom of this. Our job here is to protect the people we serve and not to protect government officials."
"The Bush Administration's response to Katrina was not only a logistical failure, it was a moral failure," said Senator Obama. "Instead of deploying the resources necessary to save lives and rebuild communities, we find another report that the Bush Administration cut corners and buried the truth. This amendment will initiate an investigation into why the Administration failed to respond to reports of a toxic gas contaminating FEMA-provided trailers and whether this environmental hazard continues to pose a threat to the victims of Katrina."
"It shouldn't take an act of Congress for FEMA to act in the best interest of those it should be serving, but it has," Senator Pryor said. "I am pleased to join Senators McCaskill and Obama in moving this matter to the forefront and standing up for the health and welfare of hurricane victims."
"We must make sure that disaster victims are safe from deadly carcinogens when they rely on the federal government for temporary housing," Sen. Landrieu said. "It is gravely troubling that FEMA would distribute trailers that they knew to have unacceptable levels of formaldehyde. This amendment will require a necessary report to determine the health risks in FEMA trailers so that victims - some of whom have lost their homes and all of their possessions - are not housed in a trailer that is dangerous to their health."
"Americans ought to be able to trust that their government won't knowingly expose them to risk," Senator Kerry said. "This amendment will get us the answers we need to determine whether FEMA exposed evacuees to dangerous toxins."
Senator Johnson said, "In March of 2006, I pushed to have these mobile homes put to good use in Indian Country. More than a year after the process started and almost two years after Hurricane Katrina, we find out that the manufacturers built mobile homes and travel trailers that may be toxic. FEMA clearly has a problem with emergency housing they have not addressed. This directive will force the agency to take care of the problems before these mobile homes and travel trailers are sent to Indian Country or future natural disaster victims."