Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Congressional Hearings Quick Grades

So the reason I blogged so late and spartanly today was because I was at a Hill hearing, namely, the House Oversight and Governmental Reform committees hearing on formaldehyde levels in FEMA trailers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The witnesses were a CDC scientist and four leaders of various corporations involved in trailer manufacturing.

It was long -- far longer than the transgender discrimination hearing I attended earlier. Part of that was because it was the full committee, rather than a subcommittee, and part of that was because for some reason everyone decided they wanted a piece of the action. The issues themselves were a mix of confusing and arcane (what are the proper protocols for formaldehyde measurements?), tertiary and side-tracking (was FEMA given sufficient notice to attend?), re-hashed and agreed upon (yes, the government should have had consistent standards!) and a few (very few) spots of actual substance -- primarily, when the conversation focused on whether the corporations had/should have provided notice of the formaldehyde levels in their trailers, and one instance of Gulf Stream flagrantly lying in a statement to the press.

So I passed the time giving mini-ratings of some of the committee members (not all, a great many of them were boring and left no impression). It's really for my amusement more than yours, but maybe you'll like it as well.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) -- A: For getting one of the CEOs to say on the record that he thought it was "irrelevant" information when one of his trailers measured nearly five times the maximum level of formaldehyde that OSHA says anyone should be exposed to in one lifetime, she wins the day in my book. But I already knew Norton was a BAMF.

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA) -- A: For being the one person to follow up on what I thought was a key issue -- the fact that Gulf Stream clearly lied when it made a statement to the press in April 2006 saying that it had heard no complaints about its trailers, when a month earlier it had received this message from a trailer owner:
“There is an odor in my trailer that will not go away. It burns my eyes and I am getting headaches every day. I have tried many things, but nothing seems to work. PLEASE, PLEASE HELP ME!!”

The chairman of Gulf Stream lamely responded that they were referring to their "history" with FEMA. Lynch replied that that was nice way of saying they didn't tell the truth.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) -- A-: He was effective, he was funny, he was clear, he was incisive. He would have gotten an A had he not at one point described his efforts as preventing the poor, poor CEOs from becoming "the last victims of Katrina." Okay, that's a bit insensitive, no?

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) -- A-: The committee chair. Was also very effective, and passionate, and correctly noted that companies have an obligation to make sure their products are safe even when government isn't looking over their shoulder. Did get beat by ranking member Tom Davis on the issue of notifying FEMA, in my estimation, though.

Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA) -- B+: He seemed nice. And very good lines of questioning, without coming off as a total hack (which is more than I can say about some folks coming up). He wasn't very memorable though -- albeit that might be how late he came in the cycle of questioning.

Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) -- B+: For some reason, I loved his style of questioning, even though the best way I can describe his tone of voice is "bored beyond all belief." Possibly because to my ears it sounded more like "bored with prey that is beneath my contempt", which I find appealing for some reason.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) -- B: He was outraged, which was a nice change of pace, but maybe not the most effective one.

Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) -- B-: The companies were all from his district, so I can understand him being a zealous defender. And the issue of science is important (though Souder appears to be in the "Global Warming is controversial" camp, which made his pretensions about the need for hard science a bit ludicrous). But geez, man, quit beating a dead horse. The issue wasn't worth having every GOPer on the committee yield to you.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) -- B-: The ranking minority member did seem to get the better of the debate with Waxman over whether FEMA and other governmental agencies were given sufficient notice to attend the hearing. So that's a point in his favor. But -- particularly since everyone agreed that FEMA screwed this issue up in particularly dramatic fashion -- it became a moot point very quickly. Which did not stop him from laying into it over and over and over again. It also (and this is what really escaped Davis' notice) did not make the rest of the proceedings irrelevant.

Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) -- C: He wasn't on the committee -- he just asked special permission to come and ask questions. 75% of his single question was waxing poetic about how trucks with trailers rolled through his Indiana district, making him so proud to be from Indiana (did he mention that he visits his district often? It's true!).

Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) -- D+: Like Donnelly, but worse. He basically said the hearing never should have been held because he knew the "families" of the witnesses and could vouch that they'd never hurt a fly ("intentionally").

The Witnesses (Collectively) -- C+: Eh. The scientist was clearly terrified to be there -- he literally told Waxman that Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), with whom he'd ridden on the plane to Washington, promised that Waxman would be nice to him. Waxman rejected the overture. The businessmen really became a single businessman -- the chairman of Gulf Stream -- who was reasonably good at bobbing and weaving except when Norton and Lynch sunk their teeth into him. At least he was better than the CEO who actually cried in his opening statement because the hearings hurt the feelings of his employees. Oh spare me.


Anonymous said...

My tangently related question, which you don't need to answer. (But I'm asking in case you heard something at the hearing...)

I live in a FEMA trailer. One of the ones sold as afterstock post-Katrina. (Don't ask me, I don't understand. And the page I want to link to isn't in Internet Archive.)

I don't live on the Gulf Coast. My trailer looks a bit different than the ones shown in videos of trailer graveyards. How hopeful/delusional am I? Short of falling sick, how do I know if my trailer is poisoning me?

I'm not too worried about it, but it does keep coming up.

*It should also be noted that I am on vacation, conveniently for the summer months. Missing June, July, and the beginning of August. I am fully planning on having windows open for the first week after I get back to my single-wide.

David Schraub said...

I didn't hear anything about non-Gulf trailers, and the line seems to be that there have been no complaints about them. The symptoms they described from formaldehyde were burning sensations (particularly in the eyes), scratchy throats, coughing and wheezing; so if you start experiencing any of those for unexplained reasons, maybe look into it. But I really don't know anything more than that.

Hoosier Girl said...

We here in Elkhart County Indiana have provided FEMA trailers for years to victims of other natural disaters in FL, CA mostly, why now is it an issue? Other victims that recieved these trailers were thankful to have a roof over their heads and not have to live in large groups on cots. Why has this only become an issue with Katrina victims?
If you built a new house the products used in finishing have the same carpet as used in the FEMA trailers.

PG said...

Hoosier Girl,

1) Katrina survivors have spent more time in their trailers than folks in most other natural disasters have, because of the difficulties of finding affordable housing in the Gulf region and the especially high number of low-income survivors relative to other disasters. Also their housing was more difficult to restore to habitability because of the humid conditions of the region, which led to toxic mold growing very rapidly, which in turn required ripping out the carpeting, flooring, insulation and even more if the mold had attacked the basic structure of the house.

Therefore if there is a chemical problem with the trailers, it may be a long-term rather than short-term one. Chemicals in the environment often do not affect health right away nor in small doses, but can become more hazardous with extended and concentrated exposures. (Think about the difference between second-hand smoke exposure when you sit with smokers at a bar twice a week during your 20s, versus living with a smoker in the home for your entire childhood.)

2) These trailers may not have been uniformly manufactured from one year to the next. What comes off the line in 2000 is not necessarily identical to what came off the line in 2005. These particular trailers apparently had toxic levels of formaldehyde, which probably resulted from faulty construction practices and the use of substandard building materials. This also can be traced to a failure of government regulations of safety, and of course such regulations may have changed from what they were under Clinton to more permissive standards under Bush. A manufacturer seeking profit obviously will cut corners where he can.

Rueben said...

Gulf the prime manufacturer for the government has ties to the Republican Party. Champion Homes the largest manufacturer in the country had verrrryyy low levels of formaldyhyde because thats is how they produce their product.Bein kneive is no answer.