Immensity of drywall problem still unfolding

MANATEE — With more than 313 million pounds of Chinese drywall imported into Florida in 2006, some of it good and some of it bad, getting a handle on where the system broke down is a daunting task.

Since tainted drywall was uncovered in Manatee County homes, there have been a flurry of lawsuits, a round of finger-pointing, and elevated interest in government offices in Tallahassee and Washington.

In Manatee County, at least five neighborhoods now have homes with symptoms of contamination: Fairways at Imperial Lakewoods, GreyHawk Landing, Crystal Lakes, Greenbrook at Lakewood Ranch and Heritage Harbour.

As of last week, 86 complaints have been filed with the Florida Health Department from 14 counties, including Manatee, Sarasota, Lee, St. Lucie, Pinellas, Collier, Dade, Citrus, Lake, Hillsborough, Highlands, Palm Beach and Broward.

But the problem isn’t limited to Florida. America’s Watchdog, a national advocacy group for consumer protection, has confirmed defective drywall in homes in Michigan, Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Maryland, North and South Carolina, New York and New Jersey, with more being investigated.

“It’s by no stretch of the imagination just in south Florida,” said Thomas Martin, America’s Watchdog president.

What’s more, Martin estimates 10,000 homes in Florida and more than 100,000 nationwide will eventually be affected. His teams are on the ground taking samples and testing air quality in homes across the nation.

At least a dozen companies manufactured defective drywall in China and about 100 builders in Florida used the product, dating back to 2004. The product is still on the market and being installed in homes, including some that are being remodeled, Martin said.

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the potential health threat posed by the defective drywall and determine whether there should be a recall of Knauf Tianjin, according to letters sent to the agencies.

In addition, Nelson would like the Consumer Product Safety Commission to consider adding drywall to the existing standards for consumer products.

Having the two agencies working together seemed the best approach in tackling the threat, said Chris Day, an attorney in Nelson’s office.

“Hopefully, they’ll investigate this and get more information because that seems like a lot of the main problem. People just don’t know,” Day said.

Builders in Manatee County that have been named as using defective drywall include WCI Communities, Taylor Morrison and Lennar. Those close to the unfolding problem believe other builders will be named in the future.

Imported quantity significant

While the extent of how much defective drywall has been used in homes around the country is unknown, data shows that the amount of wallboard, gypsum and plasterboard imported from China is significant.

In 2006, more than 495 million pounds of drywall was imported into the United States from China during the height of the building boom. The drywall was shipped to more than 15 U.S. cities, including New York, Houston, Los Angeles and New Orleans, according to a Bradenton Herald analysis of shipping data from the Port Import Export Reporting Service, or PIERS, the primary source of U.S. waterborne import-export trade.

Most of that, more than 313 million pounds, was imported into Florida, data show. Miami was the leading port for the shipments, followed by Port Everglades, Tampa, Pensacola, Port Canaveral, Manatee and Jacksonville.

Manatee County received 9,891,552 pounds of Chinese drywall in September 2006 from York Building Supply. The wallboard, about 106,000 sheets, was manufactured by C&K Gypsum, and has not been declared defective, said Capt. Rasmus Okland from Port Manatee.

Okland said that U.S. Customs confirmed that no defective wallboard from Knauf Tianjin came through Port Manatee in 2006.

“A lot of people think that all Chinese wallboard is bad wallboard, which is not correct,” he said.

The two companies that have been named as manufacturing drywall that caused problems for homeowners are Taian Taishan Plasterboard and Knauf Tianjin.

In 2007, Taian Taishan sent 4.7 million pounds of drywall to the United States through New York and Port Everglades.

Knauf Tianjin said that the company’s product accounts for about 20 percent of drywall exported to the United States during 2006. About half of Knauf Tianjin’s drywall was sold to Rothchilt, which brought the product into the United States.

Rothchilt, a major shipper listed as a defendant in a lawsuit by Lennar, sent a significant amount of Chinese drywall to La Suprema Enterprises in 2006, including 111.8 million pounds into Miami and Port Everglades, according to PIERS data.

New Orleans, in its rebuilding years following Hurricane Katrina, received more than 38 million pounds of drywall manufactured by Knauf Tianjin in 2006, PIERS data shows. More than 16 million pounds of Knauf Tianjin board were sent to Tampa aboard the ship Great Immensity in the summer of 2006.

Knauf Tianjin, which has investigated claims of odor and copper corrosion in homes that had the drywall installed, has not said whether the product is defective.

Smelly complaints lodged

In late 2006, complaints surfaced about an odor in the drywall. After discovering that rock from a certain mine, which had been supplied to many manufacturers, caused the odor, the company has stated it stopped using that material.

A majority of the board in question is unmarked and does not belong to Knauf Tianjin, according to a statement from the company. More than 100 other companies also manufactured plasterboard and exported it from China into the United States in 2006. Of all the companies, Knauf Tianjin claims to be the only company to adhere to laws about properly branding their board.

Class-action lawsuits abound

The discovery of defective drywall in homes in Florida has brought on a rash of lawsuits.

Bonita Springs law firm Parker Waichman Alonso LLP filed a class-action lawsuit for Florida homeowners. Another class-action lawsuit was filed by Darren Inverso, a Sarasota attorney, on behalf of Kristin Culliton, a Lakewood Ranch resident. Culliton has not lived in her Greenbrook Terrace home for more than a year because she believes that drywall imported from China is to blame for a bad odor and corroded air conditioning components.

The defendants named in the Culliton lawsuit are Taylor Morrison, Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co., and Rothchilt International, a company that distributes the product into the United States.

Lennar has also filed suit against manufacturers of the Chinese wallboard, installers and suppliers.

Darin McMurray, division president, said he became aware of the symptoms in homes about a year ago, but it took time to learn what exactly was causing the problem. Environ International, an environmental firm, was hired by Lennar to conduct testing and determine the cause of the symptoms.

At Lennar’s expense, families are moving from their homes while they wait for the work to be done.

Knauf Tianjin, manufacturer of the Chinese drywall, offered to install filtration systems, but Lennar opted to gut the homes instead because there is no proven data to say if a filtration system will work, McMurray said. The decision gives “peace of mind” knowing the problem has been corrected.

“The bottom line is we want to do it right and make sure our customers are safe and this is not an issue,” McMurray said.

Lennar officials say they relied on installers to buy drywall that met specifications of domestic material and hang it properly.

Now, Lennar is inspecting and counting boards to make sure it meets proper specs before installing drywall in homes, McMurray said.

Lennar said it will continue to monitor service records for symptoms of the drywall problem and address customers’ complaints or concerns, McMurray said.

“Lennar did not directly purchase the defective drywall from China or specify at any time that Chinese drywall be used as a substitute for domestic product,” the company said in a statement. “Nor did Lennar bargain for a discount or any other financial benefit from the use of Chinese drywall.”

About 80 Lennar homes in southwest Florida have been identified as possibly containing imported drywall, including at least 23 in the East Manatee neighborhood of Heritage Harbour. Another 40 homes were tested and monitored to determine whether they have problems with defective drywall. The homes were built between November 2005 and November 2006. McMurray also confirmed that the problem has surfaced in another East Manatee neighborhood, GreyHawk Landing.

Beth and Dewayne Branch, residents of Montauk Point Crossing in Heritage Harbour, moved out of their house in January, with their daughter, Ciani.

After the couple moved into Heritage Harbour, they learned neighbors were having problems with their air-conditioning systems.

“The more we met with them the more the conversation revolved around that,” Beth Branch said.

Lennar confirmed the problem was with the drywall, which emitted gases responsible for corroding the air-conditioning components and copper wiring.

The Branches said they had no second thoughts about signing Lennar’s paperwork to do work on the house after getting advice from an attorney.

Overall, the couple is satisfied that Lennar has offered to gut their home and make repairs. Dewayne Branch considers his family “blessed” to have a builder that is stepping up to take care of the problem, he said.

“There’s not many builders I’ve seen taking care of this,” Dewayne Branch said.

Jessica Klipa, Herald staff reporter, can be reached at 708-7906. Duane Marsteller, Herald staff reporter, can be contacted at 748-0411, ext. 2630.

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