Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson: Why is FEMA selling toxic trailers?

Mar 16, 2010

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson will be online discuss his column Tainted FEMA trailers should be destroyed, not sold in which he writes: "No warning sticker can absolve the government, the wholesalers and the eventual retailers of these trailers and mobile homes of their moral responsibility. Given the state of the economy -- especially the unabated national epidemic of foreclosures and evictions -- it is lunacy to pretend that families will not buy these units as primary residences."

Hi, everybody. Welcome to our regular encounter group. This is my first time using some new software we're adopting, so bear with me. Lots to talk about, of course -- health care, health care, and, of course, health care. That's the agenda at the White House these days, I hear. My column this morning was about those FEMA trailers that were found to be contaminated with formaldehyde, have sat unoccupied for a couple of years and are now being sold. I don't see the wisdom of releasing into the market 100,000 trailers that the government knows are defective and harmful to human health -- but maybe that's just me. Let's get started.

Hi Gene, Can anyone assure us that the buyer of a toxic trailer won't simply remove the sticker, tidy it up, and resell it at a profit? Also, where are the trailer manufacturers in all this? No liability or accountability? Why not? richard

No, nobody can give that assurance. This is what worries me.

Mr. Robinson, having owned several RVs,(trailers and such) I'm aware of the odor new ones have. It's caused by the curing glue in the furniture and carpets and it does dissipate. Believe me, leave a new one closed up in the hot sun and it will stink. New cars do too. I'm beyond skeptical of conclusions reached by the Sierra Club or Al Gore and their ilk. They have gigantic financial and political incentives. I'd buy a Katrina trailer and I'd use it for myself and my family except I already own and use a RV. So do many millions of other Americans.

I wouldn't make that purchase, if I were you. The air inside these trailers had unusually high levels of formaldehyde -- and this was years after their manufacture. Remember that they were purchased in 2005, and the government didn't test until late 2007 and early 2008 -- and found five times the normal levels. Not good.

If the trailers are emitting enough formaldehyde to render them unlivable, then why can't the Feds go after the manufacturers for selling a defective product? Any other consumer who purchases a dangerous product like this has recourse.

The government has since set standards for permissible levels of formaldehyde. Indor air has always been a kind of "orphan" environmental problem -- not sexy enough to attract much attention -- and I'm not sure that there were enforceable standards that could lead to a finding of liability. But I am sure that if somebody buys one of these trailers and gets sick, and can go into court with the government's own statements that the trailers are harmful to human health, then you bet there will be liability.

Hi Eugene...It seems that $279 million dollars that the government hopes to recoup from the sale of these toxic trailers is just a drop in the bucket compared to the national debt and the bailouts...does the government really need the money that badly? Besides being morally wrong, think of the lawsuits that the federal government could find themselves in.

Yeah, just doesn't seem worth it to me. I know that $279 million is, in absolute terms, a whole lot of money. And nobody wants to see taxpayer money wasted. But the trailers originally cost $2.7 billion and have been sitting unoccupied for two years, at a storage cost of something like $200 million. At some point, let's cut our losses and move on.

Re the liabilty question, in the case of 40,000 former FEMA trailers who sued, a Bush appointed federal judge is overseeing the case who was called "the very, very good friend" of Sen. David Vitter of LA when he was appointed to the federal bench. Sen. Vitter is working in tandem with the Formaldehyde Council to delay and weaken any formaldehyde standards put out by EPA. Becky Gillette, formaldehyde campaign director for sierra club

Thanks! Sierra Club was way out in front on this issue.

Not good. But not bad enough to waste a otherwise good trailer. Let the experts fix the stuff.

Otherwise, they're not so good. They've been sitting in the open, exposed, for a couple of years, with no upkeep.

Looks like there is a bit of a hullaballo with the Israeils that, according to the WaPo editorial, was avoidable. Is taking on the Israelis a good thing now, what with two wars, health care the economy, and jobs, jobs, jobs? In short, what's the Mr. Obama's point?

The quarrel with Israel (Editorial, March 16, 2010)

I can't blame the administration for being irked that the Israeli government would announce new settlements while Vice President Biden was in the country on a visit. This is a famiiar movie and, in the end, won't amount to a thng.

Can these trailers be made safe by appropriate ventilation, or are they hopelessly contaminated? If so, I'd recommend selling them to Texas so that their school board could use them for meetings.

I don't want to poison the Texas school board. I'd sure like to educate them, though.

You've been to Cuba many times. What do you think about the guy who died from his hunger strike protesting the government and the silence of the South American countries and the Black Caucus (the guy was poor and black)?

Shocking and awful. I haven't been to Cuba since Fidel got sick and surrendered power -- they didn't let me in when I tried to go -- but I think it's safe to conclude that Raul Castro is no believer in glasnost or perestroika. There are two things that we need to do in our policy toward Cuba. One, denounce the repression and highlight cases like the one of the hunger striker. Two, end the stupid trade embargo and the idiotic travel ban, which only bolster and help perpetuate the current regime.

Eugene, You said that "since the government has set standards" what standards and for what type of unit? My understanding is that HUD regulates mobile homes but only NHTSA regulates travel trailers and has no limits for indoor air in those trailers. Paul

My understanding was that these were purchasing standards for the next time FEMA buys a bunch of trailers.

Last week you fulminated, "Chief Justice John Roberts is wrong about a lot of things -- most things, actually...." the last figures I've seen show that Anthony Kennedy, recognized by folks who know -- not you, "actually" -- as the center of the Court, voted with Roberts 86% of the time. That more than suggests, "actually," that Roberts gets things right most of the time.

John Roberts gets it right (for once) (PostPartisan, March 10)

Actually, you seem to be assuming that I think Justice Kennedy is right all the time. Actually, I don't think he's infallible.

Eugene, I already submitted two comments. My name is Paul Stewart and I led the charge on exposing the contamination issues in FEMA trailers. I lived in a trailer and I tested the unit that the government supplied to us after getting sick and had no incentive except the health of my wife and I to do so. Sadly, many have tried to whitewash the toxic trailer poisoning by painting it as a partisan issue when instead it is nothing more than an issue of greed, deception, and failure to live up to the duty of supplying safe products to the end user. Paul Stewart

Thanks for writing. And it really isn't a partisan issue -- a Democratic administration is compounding the problem created by a Republican administration.

Have either the Democrats or Republicans had that come to Jesus meeting in which they really understand they need to work together to govern and find a way to marginalize the disloyal minority from the far right wing and far left wing perhaps driving them out of thier parties entirely or are we stuck in another round of gridlock for the forseeable future.

There is no need for gridlock. Democrats hold the White House and big majorities in both houses of Congress. In the end, even with "only" 59 votes in the Senate it's going to be difficult to blame the Republicans if nothing gets done.

What's your take? Regarding SCOTUS in general, I have encouraged friends and family to incorporate themselves to maximize their first amendment rights.

This leaves me pretty much speechless. Sometimes commentary is superfluous.

I fail to understand how a great number of people will protest that the government taking over their lives. Yet they demand that government solve the unemployment problem. They insist that government provide aid in the event of some national emergency. Maybe I need some type of mental treatment to comprehend this stuff.

I'm on something of a tear about this, at the moment. People talk about the federal government as if it were the bane of their lives, yet they are perfectly happy to enjoy the benefits the government bestows, send back that Social Security check. Don't you dare go hiking in a national park. Request that the air traffic controllers take the day off the next time you have to take a flight.

Is there any estimate on the percentage of Tea Partiers who are African American or Hispanic? I'm guessing the numbers are pretty low.

I'd say the numbers are closer to "really low" or "minuscule" or "insignificant." Tea Party activists say these African American and Hispanic participants exist. Maybe someday they will come out where we can see them.

Why should citizens stop cashing Soc Sec checks or getting mail or going to a NPS park when their elected officials continually blame Washington for everything? And the MSM makes it worse by having headlines and pundits yammer on about "broken government." But then again, Washington has a nice trailer waiting for you...

It used to be that you had to be from somewhere else to blame "Washington" for all the problems of the world. Now, you can make that same change from the steps of the Capitol. Amazing, isn't it?


And with that, folk, I have to sign off for today. See you again next week!

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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