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Questions arise over trailer resale

Times Staff Writer

A day after hearing testimony about health problems from Hurricane Katrina victims who had lived in government-supplied trailers, members of Congress on Friday questioned why a federal agency was auctioning many of those trailers to dealers and individuals across the country.

“I understand the need to not lose money, but if the trailers are going to make people sick, maybe we should consider cutting our losses,” said Rep. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.).

“A sale is out of the question,” said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). “These trailers should be taken out of commission until we can guarantee their safety -- and the information we have received so far provides no certainty that the health risks associated with these trailers has been addressed.”

The government acquired tens of thousands of trailers to house Katrina victims after the 2005 hurricane. The General Services Administration, which is in charge of auctioning used government equipment, has been reselling trailers that are no longer in use, having auctioned off more than 17,000 this year and almost 40,000 since April 2006.

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On Thursday, a House committee released documents showing that top officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency knew about reports of possible health problems from formaldehyde in the trailers but did not conduct testing in occupied trailers.

Three former trailer residents testified that they had suffered health effects from formaldehyde, a common component of building materials, which can cause respiratory and other problems in cases of long-term exposure.

At the hearing, FEMA Director R. David Paulison committed the agency to performing a comprehensive test of trailers still occupied by nearly 60,000 Katrina survivors. But he made no mention of testing trailers that had been reclaimed from hurricane victims who moved into more permanent housing.

FEMA has not responded to a letter sent in April by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) asking whether the agency would test vacated trailers for high levels of formaldehyde before reselling them. Waxman is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which held Thursday’s hearing.

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General Services Administration officials said each trailer listed as available for auction online at GSAAuctions.gov included a link to information about formaldehyde. No written warning is passed out when buyers pick up the trailers, officials said.

Murphy had asked at Thursday’s hearing whether a warning was passed on when a trailer was resold. More than 40% of the registered buyers on the auction website are trailer dealers looking to resell the products at a higher cost.

“We are not aware if dealers are providing or not providing any formaldehyde notice/warning. GSA has no requirements along these lines,” agency officials said in a statement Friday.

The agency also said there were no plans to test formaldehyde levels in trailers already auctioned or set to be auctioned. FEMA did not return phone calls Friday asking whether it would perform tests.

In another letter to Paulison made public Thursday, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) asked whether the agency would test surplus post-Katrina mobile homes due to be sent to Native American communities. Under recent legislation, thousands of the mobile homes have been set aside for tribes that need housing.

According to a statement from the Recreational Vehicle Industry Assn., formaldehyde is safe at levels commonly used in most trailers. The statement also said formaldehyde was commonly used in building materials for houses.

claudia.lauer@latimes.com


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