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Drywall issues arose in 2006, court docs say

At least two builders were “panicking” in late 2006 over the smell coming from drywall they had procured from Miami-based Banner Supply, according to e-mails and letters, and the builders had isolated the problem to wallboard made by a Chinese manufacturer.

Despite concerns — one builder said it could not sell some of its homes because the smell was so potent — none went public with their problems. It wasn’t until at least two years later that homeowners began reporting the effects of hydrogen sulfide emissions from the drywall eating away at their properties, and some believe, their health.

The letters and e-mails are part of court files in local and federal lawsuits against many companies in the drywall production and supply chain. The documents offer a glimpse of what some call a concerted effort to deceive consumers.

“What I can say for the consumers: They were duped,” Miami attorney Ervin Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez’s clients Armin and Lisa Seifart are in the midst of repairs to their Miami house, which they say has been damaged by the toxins seeping from drywall made in China. Their case against Banner Supply will be the first jury trial in the country regarding Chinese drywall. It is scheduled to start Monday.

“Had anybody rung the bell and said ‘There’s a problem here,’ do you think any of these problems would have occurred? They could have prevented three years’ worth of (affected) homes being sold. Banner could have been heroes,” Gonzalez said.

Instead, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is now in the midst of the largest investigation of a problem product in its history. Lawsuits against builders, suppliers, distributors, importers and manufacturers are piling up. Many homeowners are living in their smelly houses or trying to juggle rent and mortgage payments for homes they’ve abandoned.

About 3,300 complaints about drywall nationwide have been filed with the CPSC. In Florida, about 750 homeowners have complained to the Department of Health.

Banner’s attorney did not return phone messages Wednesday, nor did builders GL Homes or WCI, whose executives contacted the supply company via e-mail about drywall problems in 2006. WCI built a number of homes with Chinese drywall in Coral Springs and Parkland, among other places, and GL is repairing some of the homes it built with Chinese drywall in Palm Beach County.

But in a sworn deposition in May, Banner executive Scott Giering said he wasn’t aware of any problem with the Chinese-made drywall his company sold, other than through media reports. When Gonzalez asked him about if he was aware the drywall smelled bad, Giering said that was up for interpretation.

“Some people happen to like rotten egg smells,” Giering said.

“Smells like flatulence, doesn’t it,” Gonzalez asked, to which Giering replied, “Some people happen to like that.”

Builders using the drywall Banner supplied apparently did not. In a November 2006 e-mail, Banner Supply executive Mickey Coblentz said WCI and GL Homes were “panicking.”

An e-mail from Asian importer Rothchilt International to KPT a few days later went on to say, “It will be a big problem not only in Miami but all over the USA market, maybe cover thousand (sic) of houses.”

KPT told its suppliers to stop selling and installing its product. At the end of that November, a lab hired by KPT found that there were no public health concerns posed by the company’s drywall. The company has used that finding as a reason for not publicizing its testing or complaints about its wallboard.