by Curt Woodward
Bismarck, North Dakota (AP)
Tribal officials trying to cure a housing crunch worry about health risks and the cost of cleaning up donated Air Force houses laced with asbestos and lead.
Since the late 1990s, the Turtle Mountain Reservation in Rolette County has received more than 100 homes through a program that redistributes housing from Air Force bases.
Most of those houses have lead paint on the walls and asbestos-based glue under the floors – expensive problems that were not disclosed to tribal officials, said Richard Schroeder, the Turtle Mountain Housing Authority’s business manager.
“They painted a pretty picture,” Schroeder said. “If somebody told you ‘I’m giving you a house,’ well, you’d take it.”
The California-based nonprofit group Walking Shield American Indian Society helps distribute the surplus homes from Air Force bases to American Indian tribes.
Walking Shield has sent about 900 homes to tribes in the Dakotas, Montana and Minnesota since 1996, director Dennis Wynott said.
The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa has about 11,800 members living on and around the reservation in North Dakota.
A population boom has stretched housing thin, making the donated homes look attractive, said Andy Leverdure, the tribe’s housing authority director. But the tribe has spent thousands of dollars on renovating the air base homes, which were built in the 1960s, he said.
Schroeder said repairs for 50 houses cost the tribe about $20,000. The renovations include repainting or stripping areas with lead-based paint and installing new floors to seal off floors contaminated with asbestos.
The housing authority is searching for federal grants that will help pay for more repairs, Leverdure said.
“It’s just like in the 1800s, when they were giving smallpox blankets to the Indian people. Just a different kind of blanket,” he said.
People living in homes that have not been cleaned up may not even be aware of the health risks, Schroeder said.
Federal officials attending a regional conference on lead problems during early May in Bismarck said they are trying to figure out if disclosure rules were followed in the housing transactions.
They are not sure if the nonprofit group ever took legal ownership of the homes, which could make it responsible to pass on the information about lead and asbestos.
“We, as the feds, are unsure how the dissemination of information is taking place,” said Howard Kutzer, a regional environmental officer for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Wynott said Walking Shield finds reservations to take the military homes but leaves the disclosures about hazardous materials to tribes and the military.
“It’s from government to government,” he said. “We have no possession of the homes or anything like that.”
But Kevin Nelson, a civil engineer at the Minot Air Force Base, said homes donated to Walking Shield became the group’s property, along with documents detailing the existence of lead and asbestos.
“Those Walking Shield guys should be careful what they say,” Nelson said.
“They’ve been in the process of doling them out to whatever locations they want to. We don’t have a dog in the fight.”