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Blackfeet residents sue HUD over unsafe homes


A group of Blackfeet Reservation residents is suing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Blackfeet Tribe’s housing agency over 153 homes built with chemically treated wooden foundations.

The class-action lawsuit, filed Aug. 2 in U.S. District Court in Great Falls, alleges that HUD and Blackfeet Housing officials knew that the foundations were defective and incompatible with the reservation’s harsh environment, but built them anyway. Also named in the litigation is HUD Secretary Melvin Martinez and four current members of Blackfeet Housing’s board of directors.

The lawsuit states that many of the foundations leak, and ensuing water and sewage problems have caused the spread of mold and other health-threatening substances.

In addition, the plaintiffs say, the foundation wood was pressure treated with toxic chromated copper arsenate, also known as CCA.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that manufacturers of CCA-treated wood will voluntarily phase out of the product by 2004 because of health concerns.

Plaintiffs in the case are Martin Marceau, Candice LaMott, Julie Rattler, Joseph Rattler Jr. and Deana Mountain Chief, all Blackfeet tribal members who are either buying or leasing the homes, which were constructed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The group is represented by Billings attorneys Tom Towe and Jeffrey Simkovic.

“The housing authority has sold homes to representative plaintiffs and other class members that are substandard, unsafe, unsuitable, unsanitary, unhealthy and uninhabitable,” the six-count complaint states. The plaintiffs maintain HUD shares responsibility for the problems because the agency allegedly mandated their design and approved and paid for their construction.

Last year the Glacier Homes Committee was organized by residents concerned that their health was being compromised by mold, CCA residue, and high levels of cancer-causing radon gas in their basements. Marceau says he and other residents cannot wait for politicians to address their needs.

The lawsuit alleges that HUD has violated the National Housing Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Tucker Act, and other federal statutes. It also contends that construction of the wooden foundations violated the agency’s own regulations, as well as state and local building codes. The plaintiffs want their homes replaced and the agencies punished.

“We’re feeling like second-class citizens,” says Marceau. “In 24 years, no one would listen to us. No one seems to care. That’s why we took this action.”

When questioned about the housing issues earlier this year, HUD officials said it was the tribe’s problem, not the agency’s.

“We’re not aware of the suit at this point, but if there is a suit, we can’t comment on it,” a HUD spokeswoman said last week.


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