1:10 A.M. — WASHINGTON - Homeowners with corrosive Chinese drywall should remove and replace the drywall, wiring, electrical components and gas-service piping, two federal agencies announced Friday.
But the question of who will pay for what could be billions in repairs to tens of thousands of homes remains unresolved, even as the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Department of Housing and Urban Development offered their advice.
Whoever pays, the agencies' approved procedures are already the industry standard for comprehensive drywall removal, said John Pelland, owner of Accent Construction & Remodeling in North Fort Myers, who does drywall remediation work.
Most of the large homebuilders in Southwest Florida are doing that, and it's the right thing to do, Pelland said.
"I don't necessarily consider that overkill," he said.
Inez Tenenbaum, the safety commission chairwoman, said the federal standards will be a foundation for future policy.
"Our investigations now show a clear path forward," she said. "Our scientific investigation now provides a strong foundation for Congress as they consider their policy options and explore relief for affected homeowners."
The problem is some Chinese drywall emits corrosive hydrogen sulfide and sulfur gases, and potentially represents a fire hazard. The corrosion hurts pipes, wiring, appliances and smoke detectors.
Repairs could cost billions. Enough Chinese drywall was imported in recent years to build 60,000 homes. Contractors estimate it would cost $85 per square foot to tear out all of a house's drywall and replace it, which would total $170,000 for a 2,000-square-foot house. Replacing wiring and appliances would cost even more.
The Florida Health Department found 530 homes in Florida with metal corrosion blamed on Chinese drywall by March 1, with the most - 86 - in Lee County. But county appraisers identified 2,505 homes that had their value reduced because of drywall and another 846 cases are pending.
Fort Lauderdale-based attorney Allison Grant, who represents some Chinese drywall victims in Lee County, said the federal standards are a responsible solution.
The main issue, she said, is whether to take out the wiring as proposed or just replace some of it - it's far safer and not that much more expensive to remove it all, she said.
A question remains, however, about whether the Consumer Product Safety Commission's remedy is the best one.
Cases in U.S. District Court in Louisiana could decide on remediation to fix the problem. But if the remedy differs from the commission's recommendations, lawyers and analysts are divided on which remedy would prevail.
"This guidance, based on the CPSC's ongoing scientific research, is critical to ensuring homeowners and contractors have confidence that they are making the appropriate repairs to rid their homes of problem drywall," said Jon Gant, director of HUD's office of health homes and lead hazard control.
Gov. Charlie Crist asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency on March 10 for help dealing with drywall problems. But FEMA's regional administrator rejected the request two days later as a product-safety matter instead of a disaster.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission received almost 3,000 drywall reports from 37 states by February. Florida had the most, representing almost 60 percent of the reports.
The safety commission and the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued warnings in January for dealing with problem drywall installed from 2001 to 2008.
Sen. Bill Nelson, who first called for an investigation of the toxic drywall and traveled to China to press the government there to help U.S. consumers, said of the latest safety commission findings:
"The studies find that the drywall is bad enough to require the stuff to be removed from houses.
"Now the question is: Who pays for it?
"The way I see it, homeowners didn't cause this. The manufacturers in China did. That's why we've got to go after the Chinese government now."
The consumer agency's advice stops short of urging the removal of appliances and heating-and-air conditioning equipment, which also might be corroded by drywall. But Richard Kampf, a Cape Coral resident who leads a group of 350 homeowners, said the advice was "excellent news" in setting up a scientific justification for Congress to determine how to pay for remediation.
"This is a significant step forward for the homeowner," Kampf said, because it establishes a federal protocol instead of relying on local contractors to decide what strategy is best. "The only down side that I see here is that there is not a funding source."
He also plans to remove the insulation in his home when the drywall is out.
Replacing switches on the wall for heating and air conditioning without replacing the rest of the equipment could be risky.
"To stop short of that is a safety risk," Kampf said.
- Staff writer Dick Hogan contributed to this report.