NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Lengthy videotaped testimony from Gulf Stream Coach’s chairman of the board provided some comic relief Tuesday during the second day of the trial accusing manufacturers of poisoning people with formaldehyde from FEMA trailers after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. When Jim Shea Jr. was asked what “protocol” his company gave to people who were “sensitive” to formaldehyde, Shea responded, “To turn on the air-conditioning full blast and open the windows.”
Shea’s repeated forgetfulness during three hours of questioning was occasionally broken by a direct answer, which sometimes filled the courtroom with laughter, as in his comment about air-conditioning with the windows open.
Shea testified that Gulf Stream trailers are typically equipped with three vent fans per unit, a point that did not satisfy plaintiffs’ counsel.
“Opening the windows and turning on the air is not technical advice. Do you agree with me?” the attorney asked.
“Well, there will be times when the trailer owners can’t leave the windows open. … They might leave the trailer to go out to the store,” Shea said.
Shea insisted throughout his testimony that Gulf Stream was not aware of the high levels of formaldehyde in the trailers it made and distributed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the devastating 2005 hurricane season.
But he acknowledged that Gulf Stream sent a worker to New Orleans in March 2006, around the time that the first lawsuit claiming that FEMA trailers were poisoning people with formaldehyde made national news.
Stories on that FEMA-issued trailer were broadcast on March 16, 2006, and concerned the failing health of Paul Stewart, who lived in a Gulf Stream Coach trailer in Bay St. Louis.
Shea testified that he could not remember the specific claims about formaldehyde toxicity, but he did recall that the man Gulf Stream sent to New Orleans to check out the trailer situation – Gulf Stream’s Vice President Scott Pullin -complained about his eyes “tearing up” when he entered a FEMA trailer.
Symptoms of formaldehyde toxicity include irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and skin, and headaches.
Several times during his testimony, Shea mentioned Gulf Stream’s “sister company,” Fairmont Homes, a travel trailer company, also based in Indiana, which is owned by Shea’s father, James Shea Sr.
Shea said that Fairmont Homes “had a lot of legal trouble in the ’80’s, so a safety standard was created” by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the types of materials to be used in manufactured homes. These specifications include the use of LFE (low formaldehyde emitting) wood, rather than high formaldehyde emitting wood, which Shea said is 5 to 10 percent cheaper.
Tests on Gulf Stream-made FEMA trailers showed that much of the particle board and other wooden fixtures was not LFE.
“Why is it then that you told under oath that you used LFE products?” plaintiffs’ attorney asked.
Shea said that the government gave no specifications for air quality in the rush-ordered FEMA trailers.
In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, FEMA awarded Gulf Stream Coach more than $500 million in contracts for more than 50,000 travel trailers. They were among the few no-bid contracts for travel trailers that FEMA awarded directly to a trailer manufacturer.
The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Majority Staff Analysis reported on July 9, 2008: “After the complaints of respiratory illness in March 2006, Gulf Stream tested approximately 50 trailers in the New Orleans area, including 11 occupied trailers. Gulf Stream discovered high levels of formaldehyde concentrations in trailers they had manufactured and also in trailers made by other manufacturers. Every occupied trailer tested had levels above 100ppb, the level at which CDC, the Environmental Protection Agency, the World Health Organization, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health say acute adverse effects can be experienced. Four of the 11 occupied trailers had levels above 500 ppb, the level at which federal occupational safety regulations require medical monitoring for worker exposure. Formaldehyde levels in over 20 unoccupied trailers had formaldehyde levels above 900 ppb, a level at which the EPA says it is dangerous to be exposed for more than eight hours in a lifetime, with several trailers having levels above 2,000 ppb.”
The Shea family and its companies contributed $10,000 to George W. Bush political campaigns from 1991 to 2004, according to the political contribution tracking site, www.opensecrets.org. A search for “soft money” contributions to Republican Party politicians from the Shea family and its businesses turned up $142,271 in contributions from 1992-2004.
The trial is expected to last two weeks. U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt is presiding