Makers Of Katrina Trailers Testify

Manufacturers of the trailers purchased by FEMA for emergency housing of Katrina victims testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform committee. The panel wants to know when they knew the formaldehyde in the trailers could be harmful.

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A controversy over FEMA trailers played out on Capitol Hill today. At a hearing, manufacturers of the trailers defended themselves as Democratic lawmakers accuse them of not doing enough to deal with concerns about formaldehyde.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: Over 100,000 Gulf Coast families were put up in travel trailers after the storm. Some still live there three years later. Over that time, many residents have complained of headaches, nosebleeds and breathing problems, and government tests have found that formaldehyde from wood products used in the trailers and inadequate ventilation could be the cause.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman said some manufacturers knew of the problems early on, and that according to documents received by the committee, Gulf Stream Coach, the biggest supplier, appear to be especially culpable.

HENRY WAXMAN: Over two years ago, we tested 11 occupied trailers. Every single trailer had levels at or above 100 parts per billion, the level at which acute health effects begin to occur.

FESSLER: Waxman said some trailers even tested at levels five, 10, and, in one case, 40 times higher.

WAXMAN: Gulf Stream never told any family living in these trailers about these test results.

FESSLER: Waxman did say the Indiana-based company offered to share the information with FEMA but that the government apparently never followed up. Gulf Stream Chairman Jim Shea said Waxman had mischaracterized what his company had done.

JIM SHEA: We did not do testing, sir. We used an informal device, a screening device. It's not a scientific device.

FESSLER: He said a company official had informally checked out some of the units after reports began to emerge of formaldehyde concerns and that the results were not meaningful.

SHEA: It was a quick snapshot. It would've reflected anything that the residents would've done in a year and at the time.

FESSLER: He said that would include smoking a cigarette or cooking a meal. Shea said instead of trying to conceal problems, Gulf Stream made numerous offers to help the government address the formaldehyde issue. Committee Republicans said Democrats were aiming at the wrong target.

TOM DAVIS: What's so sad today is we're focusing just on the manufacturers and not on the government who I think has a lot of culpability.

FESSLER: Ranking Member Tom Davis of Virginia said one of the biggest problems is that there are no government standards for what's a safe level of formaldehyde in travel trailers. Davis said dumping blame on the companies, several of which are being sued by trailer occupants, could prove counterproductive.

DAVIS: When the next Katrina hits and we need to bring a lot of product on line, I dare say, a lot of these companies that have provided this in the past are probably unlikely to respond.

FESSLER: And indeed, the executive said that might be the case without clear government guidance. Peter Liegl of Forest River, which made 5,000 trailers for hurricane victims, choked up as he talked about how proud his workers were to pitch in at a time of need.

PETER LIEGL: I must also tell you, candidly, that many of our workers are now confused and hurt at the charges about the quality of our RVs.

FESSLER: Still, Democrats said the firms, which received hundreds of millions of dollars for their work, bore some responsibility. Elijah Cummings of Maryland said he was frustrated as the testimony turned into a lengthy technical debate about confusing formaldehyde standards.

ELIJAH CUMMINGS: No matter what the standard is, the American people were purchasing trailers that could bring harm to other American people. That's the face of this.

FESSLER: He said it was important to find a safe formaldehyde level before the next disaster, and the manufacturers said they'd be willing to work with the government on figuring out what that level should be.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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