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In Louisiana, ‘Toxic Trailers’ Return to House Oil Workers

A resident of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward mows his lawn in front of a FEMA trailer in 2006. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It was just a couple of weeks ago when I looked out the window of our van as we drove through southernmost Louisiana … and wondered where all those mobile homes and travel trailers came from. There seemed to be a number of them dotting the landscape of Plaquemines Parish. It’s a narrow strip of real estate bounded on one side by the Mississippi River and on the other by the endangered wetlands that define the southernmost section of Louisiana from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico.

The trailers reminded me of those infamous FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailers given to thousands of people in the Gulf when their homes were devastated by Hurricane Katrina five years ago. I say infamous because many of the people who lived in them said the trailers made them sick.

When residents started complaining of breathing problems, burning eyes, nosebleeds and persistent headaches, the Centers for Disease Control investigated and found the trailers harbored dangerous levels of formaldehyde gas.

Formaldehyde is highly toxic when inhaled and is a known carcinogen. The CDC’s findings set off alarm bells at the highest levels of the federal government. The trailers were eventually banned from ever being used again for long term housing. (Watch a 2008 NewsHour report about the toxic trailers here.)

But FEMA was stuck with 120,000 of them and a yearly storage bill of more than $130 million. So this spring FEMA and the General Services Administration sold more than 100,000 of the units, many to companies and individuals in Gulf states.

Now they’re showing up again in southern Louisiana where they’re being sold as housing for oil spill clean up workers.

The New York Times reports that an executive with Cahaba Disaster Recovery, a contracting firm that bought 15 trailers for about 45 cleanup workers, said “the price was right.”

Another disaster contractor told the Times, “These are perfectly good trailers,” adding “Look, you know that new car smell? Well, that’s formaldehyde, too. The stuff is in everything. It’s not a big deal.”

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., who represents Plaquemines Parish, have written GSA Administrator Martha Johnson asking for documentation on all sales of the formaldehyde-contaminated trailers. The also want to know whether the units were sold in compliance with GSA’s requirement that the purchaser sign an agreement that the trailers would never be used for housing and whether the sold trailers clearly display a label reading “not to be used as housing.”

Markey, who chairs the Energy and Environmental Subcommittee in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he’s worried about the health of cleanup workers “who are cleaning up toxic oil by day and then inhaling carcinogenic fumes by night,” adding the trailers “are like a recurring nightmare for the people of the Gulf.”

The GSA says it is investigating at least seven cases involving commercial buyers who may not have posted the required health warnings about formaldehyde on the units they sold.

None of the published reports have specifically implicated BP so far. The company issued the following statement on Friday:

“BP’s goal is to insure the health and safety of all workers doing cleanup work in the Gulf. As part of this effort, the company is committed to preventing the use of FEMA trailers to house these workers. In one instance, BP learned of a contractor who had secured 100 trailers, some of which were FEMA trailers. These trailers were never put into service and BP is working with the contractor to return the trailers to the distributor. Should BP learn of workers housed in FEMA trailers, the company will take immediate action to find other housing arrangements.”

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