By Caroline Reinwald
GLENDALE, Wisconsin (WISN) — Residents in a Glendale apartment complex have filed a class action lawsuit against the complex owners after elevated levels of a toxic, cancer-causing chemical were discovered inside.
In July, the North Shore Health Department issued an emergency evacuation order for six units in Building 3 of the Lydell apartment complex after unsafe levels of trichloroethylene were discovered inside. Advertisement
According to the lawsuit filed Wednesday, Lydell’s owners, Cypress Bayshore Residential, LP., “knew Building 3 presented a higher risk for TCE exposure than other areas of the Lydell development.”
The lawsuit alleges Cypress knew about the risks because of testing done in 2021 on the historic landfill site, before construction on the luxury apartments started.
“You have the (Department of Natural Resources) recommending that before buildings are occupied, that testing is completed. You also have an email indicating that occupancy was going to be done before testing was going to be performed for economic reasons,” said Michael Cerjak, a founder and attorney for Barton Cerjak S.C.
Documents obtained by WISN 12 News show the owners hired an outside firm to test for TCE. However, they did not get to Building 3 until June, after people moved in.
Selamani Ngaruko is one of the tenants listed in the lawsuit. He said he lived in Building 3 at the newly-constructed luxury apartments for two months, before the complex informed him in June about the TCE levels.
“I think being exposed to something like that and not have been informed upfront when I moved in, should have been something, that I feel, should have been told to me,” Ngaruko said. “I feel now my health is in jeopardy down the road.”
Kate Vlahoulis is another tenant listed in the lawsuit. She sent WISN 12 News a written statement on Thursday.
“In my view, the health and safety of my family, and the health and safety of all the residents of our building at The Lydell, has been needlessly and recklessly endangered. I’m deeply concerned about my family’s exposure to a toxin and the potential for long-term health effects. This should never have happened in the first place,” the statement said. “For nearly three months, my family and I lived there, used the elevators and stairwells, and breathed in harmful vapors, while management downplayed the situation and told us not to worry. Ultimately, we made the decision to leave as soon as we could in order to protect our family. I believe The Lydell’s owner Cypress needs to be held accountable for its actions. I also believe that we need to change the law so that a situation like this never happens to anyone ever again.”
The lawsuit also accuses Cypress of downplaying tenants’ TCE exposure risk.
In one email, dated June 14, a spokesperson for Cypress asked an environmental firm testing for TCE to re-write a proposed letter to tenants that does not “make it sound like the [tenants] have had a month-long exposure to the plague.”
The lawsuit goes on to accuse Cypress of misleading tenants, by saying the levels of TCE discovered in Building 3 were”‘not a big deal’ and that government officials were ‘blowing the situation out of proportion.'”
For residents like Ngaruko who do not live in the evacuated units, but still reside in Building 3, Lydell’s owners offered to move residents to other apartments within the Lydell complex, or give them $500 to move elsewhere.
“If you take the agreement and you take the $500, you are going to give up your claim to make any claim now or in the future, if you develop any adverse health care consequences,” Cerjak said. “I think that’s a scary proposition in a situation like this.”
“I wouldn’t feel safe relocating (to another Lydell apartment), knowing what I know now,” Ngaruko said.
In response to WISN 12 news on Thursday, Cypress Bayshore Residential said it is reviewing the allegations in the lawsuit and is not ready to respond at this time.
Last week, Glendale’s mayor, Bryan Kennedy, said the city issued a temporary occupancy permit for the Lydell Apartments, which sit on an old landfill site, but air quality is not part of city building inspections and oversight.
“The city oversees the structure. We come in and we check the plumbing and the electrical and make sure that the balconies are all safe. The fire department goes in and they check to make sure that the fire systems are working, the sprinklers are working. We sign off on all of that,” said Bryan Kennedy, Glendale’s mayor. “The DNR would sign off on whether or not they were meeting the requirements for mitigating whatever contamination might have been below the surface.”
The DNR told WISN 12 News it does not have the authority to grant or take away occupancy.
“Would it be accurate for us to say there is a gap that isn’t being covered in this process,” WISN 12 News investigative reporter Caroline Reinwald asked.
“Yeah, absolutely. We’re going to put in place, for our permitting, before we do a final signoff, we’re going to look at, ‘Has the DNR signed off?’ Because we can say the building is structurally sound, but it’s up to that contractor to make sure they’ve done the air quality testing or, in some cases, water quality testing, whether they’ve done their storm-water management system, and those are all signed off by the state. Those should be complete before a project is actually deemed complete,” Kennedy said. “So we’re going to have to work more closely with the state to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen.”
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