Rotten deal

For 153 families trapped in Browning’s Glacier Homes project, home is where you hang your headache.

April 06, 2006

Randy Edwards pulls back the blue tarp and tiger-print blanket covering the sheet of plywood his family uses to block off the basement. On the way down, the last two stairs are slippery with moisture, and past the doorway the air suddenly deadens and seems to pull your breath out in an unfamiliar but unmistakable way.

“I used to have a room down here until [the mold] got too bad,” says Randy, 22, who grew up with once-a-week nosebleeds and perpetual headaches that he still treats with Tylenol. Ten years ago, the Edwards family shut off the entry to the basement after black mold took over. In one basement room, a spreading pool of water betrays a leak that’s resulted from the combination of a shoddy wooden foundation and deep-snow country. Parts of the walls are rotted away and others are painted pink, but dark shadows of mold disrupt the color.

Randy’s father, Lucky, has lived here with his family since the home was finished 28 years ago, and all five family members suffer from the same symptoms Randy has, though Lucky’s now ex-wife also suffers from more serious ailments including kidney failure.

“It makes us all sick,” Lucky says. “It’s hard to catch your breath, and we have bloody noses and wicked headaches.”

Lucky’s house, which tribal officials have condemned more than once, is among the worst of the Glacier Homes Housing Project, 153 federally funded homes built in the late ’70s around Browning on the Blackfeet Nation Reservation. Residents say their houses, purchased on a lease-to-own program, became nightmares after they moved in, but waking up and moving out of the only homes they can afford is not an option. So, for the last 25 years or so, many residents have stayed put in substandard shelters they believe are killing them.

Poorly built foundations made from arsenic-treated wood—banned by the EPA for residential use in 2003—have been party to a litany of structural problems manifest in the homes’ bowing walls, leaky basements and extensive mold colonies. Other construction defects in the plumbing and ventilation systems have led to sewage contamination and levels of radon that far exceed federal limits. More alarming are the health problems that residents attribute to the homes, but which officials are quick to point out have not been proven.

Stand on the front porch of one of these homes and scan the surroundings. First your eye is drawn to the scores of roving dogs, the windblown garbage caught in the imperfect net of broken fencing, and then the wide sky that fastens down around the peaks of Glacier National Park, just west of town. Pointing to their neighbors’ homes, longtime residents reel off the sicknesses that seem to alternate every few doors, like the pastel colors of the houses’ siding: cancer, kidney failure, asthma, frequent nosebleeds, nonstop headaches. Very few homes are passed over, and later, conversations with residents quickly take on the tone of some warped déjà vu as each one recites permutations of these illnesses in their family and how they all wish, so much, that someone would help them, and that their houses could be what most people expect in a home: safe, sanitary and decent.

Seeking accountability
After years of unsuccessfully lobbying tribal and federal housing officials for repair or replacement of their homes, in 2002 a handful of Glacier Homes residents filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which funded and regulated construction of the 153 homes, and Blackfeet Housing, the nonprofit tribal housing authority that received HUD’s funds and contracted out the building of the homes.

Though Montana District Court Judge Sam Haddon dismissed the residents’ claims on jurisdictional grounds in 2004, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals heard the residents’ case in June 2005 and hasn’t yet issued a decision one way or another.

Both HUD and Blackfeet Housing, as arms of sovereign nations, are immune from prosecution unless and until they waive their rights of “sovereign immunity.” Both HUD and Blackfeet Housing claim their sovereign rights have never been waived. And since the district court judge dismissed the case on this basis, HUD and Blackfeet Housing haven’t yet officially addressed the issue of who approved the wooden foundations and substandard construction, and who, then, might be called upon to resolve the problems.

The plaintiffs argue that the quality of the Glacier Homes violates HUD’s legal obligation to provide “safe, sanitary and decent” housing: “In order to save money…HUD directed that all 153 homes in the first phase of construction be constructed using chemically-treated wooden foundations even though such foundations were not standard in the industry at the time, were in violation of state and local building codes, are now in violation of their own regulations, and even though HUD knew, or should have known, that such construction materials could eventually produce contamination that could eventually lead to inhabitability of these 153 homes,” their complaint reads.

HUD officials wouldn’t comment for this story, citing pending litigation. And Blackfeet Housing Director Ray Wilson wouldn’t discuss the foundation issue beyond saying that documents show HUD reviewed and approved the plans.

In fact, records from HUD and Blackfeet Housing show that each blames the other for the project’s construction decisions and their repercussions. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), in a 2002 report sent to Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg, may lend some insight to the origins of the housing problems. In discussing the homes’ history, the BIA reported that: “The homes were completed and people from the community began to move into the homes in 1980. This was done under much protest and controversy as the homes were built with plywood foundations. The Blackfeet Indian Housing Authority at that time was one of the groups representing the view that the homes should be rejected and the contractor held liable for the replacement of the wooden foundations. Some of the complaints were about shoddy and unprofessional craftsmanship and of course that wood foundations would not give the homeowner a long-term product…One of the contractors at that time was RC Hedren Construction, a Spokane company who of course lobbied HUD to pass the foundations for final payment. Blackfeet Housing was not in agreement with the contractor, but was forced into payment to the contractor for the work by HUD officials.”

Who’s ultimately to blame, of course, is a decision for the court, if and when it chooses to hear the case. In the end, though, that’s not what matters to the residents of Glacier Homes. What they care most about is whether the homes in which they’ve lived for the last 25 years have been making them sick, and if anything can be done about it.

Noxious neighborhood
In the case of the Edwards family, inspections done before the lawsuit was filed found such egregious health conditions that the family’s home became a high priority for tribal officials. Other homes, less contaminated than the Edwards’, haven’t received the same attention.

In 2002, STAT! Disaster Restoration, Inc. of Kalispell inspected 11 of the Glacier Homes to gauge the health risks and explore possibilities for remediation. When Lucky walked the two inspectors down into his basement, he says, they kicked him out and would only venture back down themselves once they’d donned full protective suits. Testing revealed the mold there to be stachybotrys chartarum, a black mold believed to be the most dangerous of several varieties that grow in homes, given the right conditions.

“They told me they couldn’t believe I wasn’t dead,” Lucky says.

The STAT workers found that 70 percent of the inspected homes had “extensive visible mold,” which means more than 32 square feet, and that 50 percent had more than 100 square feet of visible mold, and the report says that even those numbers are deceiving, since only half of mold colonies are typically visible. In discussing the symptoms reported by residents, the report says: “The health problems described by the Blackfeet residents living with mold in their homes have been observed in numerous studies of individuals exposed to toxigenic molds.” Additionally, more than a quarter of the homes evidenced long-running sewage contamination problems from septic backups that have resulted from poor design and construction.

After the STAT report, Blackfeet Housing’s Wilson says the tribe offered the Edwards family a $5,000 moving allowance, which they accepted, and a rental home, which they didn’t. Lucky says he refused to leave his cattle ranch, about eight miles from most of the Glacier Homes, since it’s the site of his livelihood. He says he was especially reluctant to abandon it since the rental home Blackfeet Housing offered was just another of the wooden-foundation houses in the Glacier Homes neighborhood. Wilson says he’s tried for years since then to secure funding from HUD or the tribe for a new home for the Edwards family, but hasn’t succeeded.

Lucky, 47, says he’s given up on getting help from the tribe, but he’s hopeful the lawsuit will be successful. He calls HUD officials every day to talk about his family’s problems and what HUD can do, and every day the answer is the same: “They say they can’t help us,” he says.

Homegrown sickness
When Gary and Mary Jane Grant are asked why they haven’t left the home they believe has caused the steady degeneration of their health, a small smile spreads over Gary’s lips; clearly he’s been asked this question before.

“We have no place to go because we don’t have the money to build or rent a home,” he says. “We don’t have money to even get a trailer home.”

Still, after hearing about the Grants’ health problems, the question must be asked.

About a year after moving into their new home in 1978, the Grants began noticing frequent headaches, dizziness and nausea, and their young son developed asthma. When their granddaughter, now 10, moved in she developed asthma within months. Gary, now a diabetic, had a kidney transplant in 1997 and a small cut on his leg—though treated persistently with antibiotics—turned into a bone infection that eventually required amputation below his knee. Today, he takes about 20 medications a day and is confined to a wheelchair. Mary Jane suffers from sinusitis and thyroid disease and nosebleeds and headaches. They think their home environment—in particular the wood treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) and formaldehyde, which they worry leaches toxins into the air—has damaged their bodies’ abilities to heal and to keep well, and both feel like they’re perpetually coming down with a cold, only it never really comes on fully or fully goes away.

Springtime rainstorms soak through the basement’s wood foundation onto the floor, and the forced air furnace blows air that makes your eyes burn, Mary Jane says. In 2005, when the Glacier Homes Committee invited an inspector who was also a chemist to tour the homes, he was in the Grants’ home for about 30 seconds before he walked out and said he wouldn’t go back in without protective gear; he said he recognized that the burning sensation on his face was related to toxins inside.

“When you get out of these homes you feel good after breathing clean air,” Mary Jane says. “There’s too many illnesses in these homes to not mean something.”

In 2001, Gary says, he was inspired to improve his family’s situation after reading about a similar circumstance on the North Dakota reservation of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. In 2000, about 50 homes with wooden foundations and subsequent mold and other problems similar to those in the Glacier Homes were replaced after Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., secured a special congressional appropriation. So the Grants and a handful of other Glacier Homes’ residents formed the Glacier Homes Committee, hoping to achieve a similar outcome. The Blackfeet Tribal Council, in a resolution, officially recognized the group and offered nominal support to its efforts, but Gary says the help largely ended there. Montana’s congressional delegation toured the homes and contacted HUD about the issue, but in 2002, frustrated that nothing had been done, the Committee consulted Billings lawyer Jeffrey Simkovic and eventually resorted to litigation.

“Our committee tried every which way with Blackfeet Housing and the tribe to get some help for these homes and they refused,” Gary says. “They failed to help us.”

Tribal Councilwoman Betty Cooper, who’s also on the tribe’s housing committee, wasn’t on council at the time the Glacier Homes Committee formed and began seeking help from Blackfeet Housing and the council. But she says the tribe couldn’t help the residents because it simply does not have the resources. The Blackfeet Reservation, home to about 10,000 people, is plagued with 60 to 80 percent unemployment depending on the season, and a massive list of unmet needs, she says.

“The money we get through HUD only meets about 15 percent of the housing needs on the reservation—so we have 85 percent that’s not being met. Housing is just not able to respond to all the needs,” Cooper says.

Blackfeet Housing Director Wilson says HUD funding has steadily decreased in recent years, and the money that is allocated to the Blackfeet is dedicated to maintaining rental units and building new housing to keep up with increased demand.

This funding dilemma isn’t limited to the Blackfeet Reservation; at the most recent court hearing, Glacier Homes’ co-counsel Mary Anne Sutton noted that Congress cut more than $53 million from Indian housing programs nationwide in 2005 alone. Even in the case of the Turtle Mountain appropriation, which sounds positively dreamy to Glacier Homes residents, the unintended and little-published consequence of the $5 million dedication was that HUD pulled that amount from the national pool of project money, helping one tribe at the price of stiffing many more.

The need to address mold contamination in tribal homes isn’t limited to the Blackfeet Nation either. A 2004 study HUD conducted on mold problems facing tribes found that black mold is estimated to exist in 15 percent of tribal homes, and it would cost more than $90 million to address the problem. That figure may be severely undervalued though: Sutton says a 2003 estimate of the costs for replacing the Glacier Homes alone totaled more than $30 million, a figure that didn’t include remediation of the existing homes, and that has almost certainly risen in intervening years.

“Hopefully, there will be an order from the court to force Congress to appropriate money for [the replacement of these homes],” says Simkovic, lead counsel for the Glacier Homes plaintiffs.

For its part, HUD recently made clear before the Ninth Circuit Court judges that a judgment is exactly what it would take for HUD to be able to offer any solution to the Glacier Homes dilemma. During the hearing, Harry Pregerson, one member of the three-judge panel, repeatedly inquired about the health risks posed by the homes, ultimately bringing out an admission from HUD’s lawyer that though he wished to settle with the plaintiffs, HUD simply didn’t have the money to do so.

Pregerson: “Look, I’m worried about the health of these people. You have all these nice little technicalities, but you have 153 families of poor people that need help and from what we hear they’re living in pretty dangerous, unhealthy conditions. You’d think the tribe would be concerned about it.”

Blackfeet Housing counsel Stephen Doherty: “I think the tribe is concerned about it and has made substantial efforts outside of the courtroom to attempt to deal with them but has not been successful. It requires extra money.”

Pregerson: “Well, why can’t HUD come up with the money? They gave the money to begin with and they were watching this thing. Maybe they dropped the ball. Let me ask HUD counsel a question. Is there any way HUD can come up with the money?…It sounds pretty disgraceful, doesn’t it?”

HUD counsel Harold Rennett: “It’s extremely frustrating for HUD because Congress does not favor HUD and does not trust HUD…We would have liked to have the opportunity in the mediation process in this case to settle it. I cannot settle litigation for money anymore because we don’t have the ability to expend money outside of this construct that Congress has given us…”

Pregerson: “So it sounds like what you’re saying is this is a political question that has to be addressed to Congress because there is no money.”

Rennett: “As a practical matter, that’s true.”

Proving the point
Today, four years after the suit was filed, there has been little progress and Glacier Homes residents are becoming interested in trying other ways to improve their state of affairs. Even if the Ninth Circuit agreed tomorrow that the plaintiffs’ claims should be aired in court, residents would still face a long, uphill battle to prove that the government neglected its duties by selling the Glacier Homes to them when they weren’t “safe, sanitary and decent.”

Blackfeet Housing’s Wilson brings up another of the hurdles residents may need to overcome: proving that the houses are linked to their litany of ailments. Though the condition of the homes themselves may qualify them for repair or replacement, many residents are also convinced the homes are to blame for their poor health. Not everyone agrees.

“The same medical conditions that these individuals have alleged were created by their living conditions largely exist in our population in all kinds of housing,” Wilson says.

He cites a lack of evidence linking black mold to asthma and nosebleeds, and says its association with afflictions like kidney problems and cancer is even more specious. CCA-treated wood is toxic if ingested, he says, but not otherwise, so he doubts it’s had any impact on the residents.

Wilson is right that there’s not a plethora of conclusive information about black mold’s effects, but that’s largely because it hasn’t been thoroughly studied, and researchers don’t understand much about the effects of the mycotoxins it produces. Studies in Cleveland, Ohio, did find that it caused bleeding of the lungs and other respiratory problems in 27 children, and the EPA says it’s being investigated in relation to other “serious health problems” around the United States. The Washington State Department of Health says that “toxic effects at relatively low doses include rashes, mild neurotoxic effects such as headache, nausea, muscle aches and pains, and fatigue. The immune system may also be affected resulting in a decreased resistance to infections. Health problems related to long-term exposure to toxins have not been studied.”

However, Wilson’s point that the Glacier Homes residents’ health complaints are merely anecdotal at this point is true, even if the sheer number and intensity of the anecdotes sometimes seem overwhelming.

The Glacier Homes residents know this; in fact, that’s why they and Simkovic, who also has a master’s degree in public health, proposed an epidemiological study of residents back in 2002. After designing the study that would have trained and employed Blackfeet tribal members to research the medical histories and conditions of the residents, and after finding a grant to fund the project, the Committee went to the Tribal Council for its blessing, which was required to secure the grant. Strangely enough, the tribe repeatedly refused to permit the study, and residents eventually dropped the idea. Councilwoman Cooper wasn’t involved when the idea was brought forward, and doesn’t know why it was rejected. Attempts to speak with council members who were involved at the time were unsuccessful by press time.

Cooper says she’d like to see such a study brought forward again, and says she’d do her best to help gain Council’s support this time around.

The timing for her support may be perfect, given that University of Montana professor Robin Saha, who teaches in the public health and environmental studies arena, has been working with Glacier Homes residents over the last year to learn about their health concerns and home conditions.

“The community has a lot of questions about why they’re so sick and if their housing has anything to do with it,” he says. “Obviously the best thing for the people there is to get new housing, and yet these problems have been known for at least five or 10 years and that hasn’t been able to shake the money loose.”

Saha hopes to work with the Blackfeet Community College, which just launched an environmental science program, and other entities like Blackfeet Housing and Indian Health Services on a survey this summer to investigate rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses both in and out of the Glacier Homes neighborhood.

He hopes this small-scope study could provide pilot data to help determine whether a full-blown epidemiological study of residents is merited.

“The more major study could try to measure indoor environmental conditions in the homes and determine with some statistical confidence whether there’s an association between adverse health effects and environmental conditions,” says Saha, who says UM epidemiologist Curtis Noonan would provide expertise.

Saha, Simkovic and two members from the Missoula group Community Action for Justice in the Americas (CAJA) met with about a dozen Glacier Homes residents March 24 in Browning to talk about the potential for the study and to visit about what types of things residents might do to improve their home conditions in the meantime. Saha is seeking a small grant, separate from the one for the study, to fund the purchase of air filters or other stopgap measures that might improve residents’ living conditions.

“The lawsuit may help in the long-term, but I think there are some things people can do in the meantime to reduce their risk,” Saha says.

He and CAJA members also performed the latest mold test in the homes of the Edwards and the Grants to see what type of mold is growing there, since many molds are common and mostly harmless but others—specifically stachybotrys—are considered toxic. Test results hadn’t been returned by press time.

Martin Marceau, also a lead plaintiff in the suit who lives down the street from the Grants, says he hopes the health studies can move forward to help pinpoint what’s ailing the Glacier Homes residents, and whether those ailments occur at higher rates there than in the rest of the community.

In his mind, though, he’s already convinced of the connection. Like the Grants and the Edwards, the Marceau family has lived in their home since it was built, and reports the same symptoms as many of the other families: asthma, nosebleeds, chronic cough, headaches. They’ve also run a small daycare from their home since 1979 to help pay the bills, Martin says, and most of the young children have developed some of the same conditions. He says that even though he’s long warned the children’s parents about his home, they bring their children anyway, and report that the kids’ runny noses and coughs disappear once they go home for the night.

He wishes he could say the same for himself.

“When we leave town for a weekend—maybe go to Great Falls to get away—we feel great. And then we come back and here we are, feeling that same, sick way,” Martin says.

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

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