Dem lawmakers want Obama to probe use of contaminated FEMA trailers for spill crews

Several House Democrats have asked the Obama administration to investigate claims that dozens of trailers contaminated with formaldehyde are being used to house oil spill clean-up crews along the Gulf of Mexico.

The trailers were initially provided to victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA stopped distributing them after concerns arose in 2006 that they were not safe for use as long-term shelter.

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But the agency and the General Services Administration (GSA) auctioned off more than 100,000 of the trailers earlier this year to recoup taxpayer funds, with the requirement that buyers not use them for housing.

The claims, first reported in The New York Times last week, have sparked a request for more information from House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce environment subpanel, and subcommittee member Charlie Melancon (D-La.) have also made inquiries.

"The dumping of 100,000 trailers, recreational vehicles, and mobile homes into the stream of commerce with a simple buyer beware is inexcusable and reckless," Thompson wrote in a letter to the heads of FEMA, the GSA and the Justice Department. "Many of these units have alarming levels of formaldehyde, mold, and mildew festering inside, and now they are housing many of the workers that our nation is relying on to help us recover from the devastating (effects) of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It is simply irresponsible for our federal government to allow this to continue."

Thompson had raised concerns prior to the auction, and in his letter he requests that "at a minimum" the agencies answer these questions:

— what steps they're taking to investigate the allegations, what penalties violators face and when the Justice Department will begin prosecutions;

— what kind of warning decals were required inside the trailers and, if they were removed before resale — as several subsequent buyers have claimed — what the penalties are;

— what is the status of GSA Inspector General investigations into buyers who may not have posted required certification and formaldehyde warnings; and

— whether any purchaser has provided any documentation indicating how they intend to use the trailers.

Markey and Melancon wrote a less critical letter to GSA Administrator Martha Johnson requesting similar information about its monitoring of the auctioned trailers, and about what the agency plans to “protect the health and wellbeing of workers who are responding to the BP oil spill."