MANATEE -- Florida's senior senator wants a Chinese drywall manufacturer that supplied Sunshine State homebuilders with toxin-laced gypsum board to pay for the damage and strife its products caused.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., is circulating a letter among his colleagues in the Senate in which he urges Taishan Gypsum to reach a "fair and just settlement" with homeowners who suffered damage to their homes and health due to sulfuric emissions from the company's drywall. Nelson is looking for co-signers for the letter.
The effort is the latest development in a nationwide legal battle with several Chinese companies that provided drywall during the housing construction boom eight years ago.
Taishan has already been ordered by a federal appeals court to pay $2.7 million to seven Virginia homeowners for damages resulting from the company's drywall. The drywall emissions are known to emit a foul odor and, in some cases, corrode electrical wiring, components, and piping.
How many Manatee County residents could benefit from a settlement in Florida is unknown. The county's building department has received few complaints about the drywall, even though it solicited feedback from residents who suspected it might be in their homes.
Florida was particularly hard hit with defective dry
wall cases. Nelson's office said 2,000 of 3,400 reported cases across the nation occurred in Florida.
According to a staff adviser for the senator, Nelson wants Taishan to pay for testing, drywall replacement, and moving and storage costs for homeowners who had to move out of their homes. If Taishan did pay, it would follow another high-profile settlement. Knauf Tainjin Plasterboard created an uncapped fund to pay for repairing about 5,200 properties largely in Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.
The manufacturers are not the only companies to take responsibility. John Barnott, Manatee County director of building and development services, said builders that used Chinese drywall in the county took the repair expense upon themselves.
"All the builders went in and said 'Hey, we're sorry,' and fixed it," he said.
One of those builders was Lennar Corp. Lennar replaced drywall in a number of homes in its Heritage Harbour development in East Manatee.
Home inspectors continue to look for the drywall in homes sold in Florida. Rich Yelton, home inspector with Port Charlotte-based Best Home Inspections, said he is finding fewer homes with Chinese drywall as the years go by. After Chinese drywall imports peaked in 2006, most of the cases he identified were in Hillsborough County. The last case he saw in Manatee County was about three years ago.
Inspecting for the drywall is a threefold process. Inspectors first look for corrosion inside home air handlers, and on metal pipes and electrical components, which indicates the presence of the sulfur emissions associated with defective Chinese drywall. If that corrosion is present, an inspector will then look for branding on sheetrock seams.
A final confirmation can be done by sending chunks of suspicious drywall to an environmental testing lab. That usually doesn't happen in a real estate transaction.
"Chances are you're just going to walk away from the deal," Yelton said.
For homeowners who do find they have Taishan drywall, compensation is not guaranteed. Nelson's office stated that Taishan has yet to pay a single homeowner impacted by its products. His letter is intended to press for that compensation.
"It is time for the Chinese government to step up and demand that its companies exporting products to the U.S. comply with their obligations under various trade agreements and international treaties," he said a statement sent to the Herald.
Nelson has been vocal on the drywall issue for some time. He supported the Drywall Safety Act of 2013, which sets mandatory marking and content standards for drywall. He also supports legislation that would help consumers extract damages from foreign companies that sell defective products in the United States.
The full text of Nelson's letter was not available this week. His office will make it available after it is in a final draft and has been signed by other senators.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.