WASHINGTON – The Federal Emergency Management Agency has suppressed warnings from its own Gulf coast field workers since the middle of 2006 about suspected health problems that may be linked to elevated levels of formaldehyde gas released in FEMA-provided trailers, lawmakers said today.
At a hearing Thursday of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, investigators released internal e-mails indicating that FEMA lawyers rejected environmental testing out of fear that the agency would then become legally liable if health problems emerged among as many as 120,000 families displaced by Hurricane Katrina who lived in trailers.
FEMA’s Office of General Counsel “has advised that we do not do testing,” because this “would imply FEMA’s ownership of this issue,” wrote a FEMA logistics specialist on June 16, 2006, three months after news reports surfaced about the possible effects of the invisible cancer-causing compound and one month after the agency was sued.
Another FEMA attorney on June 15 advised, “[d]o not initiate any testing until we give the OK. . . . Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.” Committee Chairman Henry L. Waxman (D-Calif.) called FEMA’s bureaucratic neglect of storm victims “sickening.”
Nearly 5,000 pages of documents turned over to the committee “expose an official policy of premeditated ignorance,” Waxman charged. “Senior officials in Washington didn’t want to know what they already knew, because they didn’t want the legal and moral responsibility to do what they knew had to be done.”
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said FEMA obstructed the 10-month committee investigation and “mischaracterized the scope and purpose” of the agency’s actions. “FEMA’s reaction to the problem was deliberately stunted to bolster the agency’s litigation position,” Davis said. The documents “make it appear FEMA’s primary concerns were legal liability and public relations, not human health and safety.”
About 60,000 households affected by Katrina remain in trailers.