The New York Times reported yesterday that the formaldehyde-tainted trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to people who had lost their homes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina are getting a second life. This time around, the trailers are being used as housing for workers cleaning up the growing BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast.
Many families displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were initially housed in 120,000 trailers issued by FEMA. As Amnesty reported in Un-Natural Disaster: Human Rights in the Gulf Coast, several residents soon began complaining about respiratory problems and burning eyes, noses and throats. The trailers were found to have had such high levels of formaldehyde that the government banned them from being used as long-term housing. But what was the government going to do with thousands of contaminated trailers that cost $130 million every year to maintain? Auction them off to the general public, of course.
The trailers—resold from $2,500 and up at auctions in 2006—were bought by individuals and companies, including contracting firms now involved in the oil spill cleanup. Although FEMA placed restrictions on the use of the trailers as housing and required that subsequent owners be informed that the trailers are not intended for housing, cleanup workers are reportedly living in the trailers unaware of the health risks they face. This disturbing news comes on the heels of reports that hundreds of complaints have already been filed by cleanup crew members with poison control centers after exposure not only to the oil, but to the fumes from the burning of the oil, and to the chemicals in the dispersants.
The individuals working tirelessly to clean up the oil spill in the Gulf have a right to housing that is safe and habitable, to protection from conditions that are hazardous to their health, and to complete and accurate information about the environment in which they are living and working. The oil spill already poses a threat to human rights particularly in those communities of the Gulf region that are still struggling to recover from severe hurricane damage, a threat that is now compounded by the resurrection of FEMA’s formaldehyde trailers. Surely the least we can do is protect the rights of those who are working to protect our own environmental human rights. A sign of how seriously the Government wants to avoid any more fallout from an already disastrous situation? By Thursday night Congress had already called for an official investigation into the use of the condemned trailers.