‘They’ve got it’: Chinese drywall

PALMETTO — The room picked for Ryleigh Jo Baker’s nursery is nearly empty.

The walls have not been painted pink as Joe and Brittany Baker had planned to do before Ryleigh’s expected arrival early this summer. Also missing is Ryleigh’s crib, which used to be her father’s when he was a baby — it sits unassembled, in the garage of the couple’s 3-year-old home in the Carpentras of the Villages of Avignon subdivision.

The nursery is unfinished because her soon-to-be parents are afraid to remain in their house — it could contain Chinese drywall.

“When she’s born, there’s no way I’m bringing her here,” Brittany Baker said Thursday as she stood in her kitchen. “Not unless I know it’s safe.”

It’s not, says a Sarasota construction consultant who inspected the Bakers’ house on 29th Avenue East and concluded that it contains the suspect wallboard.

“They’ve got it,” said Michael Foreman of Foreman & Associates Inc., who estimates he has inspected more than 200 Florida homes for Chinese drywall so far.

Foreman based his diagnosis on the extent of corrosion throughout the Bakers’ house. Copper tubing in the air-conditioning system, underneath a bathroom sink and in the refrigerator all have blackened and corroded — tell-tale signs of the presence of Chinese drywall, he says.

“The refrigerator corrosion was among the worst I’ve seen,” Foreman said. “There was significant corrosion.”

But the builder adamantly denies Foreman’s conclusion, noting Foreman didn’t check the drywall itself to determine whether or not it came from China.

“There’s absolutely no Chinese drywall in any of those houses,” said Dan Barwick, chief executive of deMorgan Communities. “We never used that Chinese drywall. To say we did is absolutely ludicrous.”

He said his subcontractors told him a few months ago that the Palmetto development is Chinese drywall-free. Barwick said he had asked about it after seeing media reports about homeowner complaints that it emits a rotten-eggs odor, corrodes metal and causes various health problems.

Barwick said deMorgan’s drywall came from Lakehill Supply, which later was acquired by Allied Building Products Corp. He said the company could guarantee its drywall did not come from China.

Calls to Allied were not returned Thursday or Friday.

Foreman acknowledges he didn’t test the drywall in the Bakers’ house but is skeptical of Barwick’s claim, saying most builders initially deny using Chinese drywall when told it’s in homes they’ve built.

“They’re not isolated cases in a development like that,” he said. “It’s not like they delivered it to just one house.”

Brittany Baker says several neighbors have told her they’ve had problems with their air-conditioning units, like she has. The Bakers’ unit stopped working less than a month after they moved into the house in July 2006, and has required service several times since, she said.

The Bakers didn’t think Chinese drywall could be a culprit until an air-conditioning service technician mentioned it two weeks ago and suggested they call Foreman.

The day Foreman told her it was in the house, Brittany Baker moved out. She’s now staying with her in-laws while Joe Baker, who is in the U.S. Army, continues training in Colorado.

The couple are hoping deMorgan will replace the drywall if it’s confirmed to be from China, or replace the air-conditioning system if it’s not. The Bakers also are seeking financial assistance to avoid defaulting on their mortgage, which would jeopardize Joe Baker’s security clearance and post-training assignment to MacDill Air Force Base.

But most of all, they want a safe place for Ryleigh to live.

“I don’t want anything to happen to my daughter,” Brittany Baker said.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.

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