Rudi Stock picks out three pieces of drywall at Lowe's in south Fort Myers on Friday. Stock is refurbishing a mobile home. / Sarah Coward/news-press.com
Danielle Catalini scans the bar code on Rudi Stock's drywall purchase at Lowe's on Friday.
Mansfield, Ohio resident Jerry Erwin loads 1/2' drywall into his van for a second-home remodeling project at Lowe's home improvement store in South Fort Myers Friday, January 4. / Sarah Coward/The News-Press
The Drywall Safety Act of 2012 should benefit future Southwest Florida homeowners and offers a sliver of hope to those dealing with homes built with defective Chinese drywall.
The measure is being hailed by some as a bipartisan Congressional effort and a step on the way to acknowledging and addressing the suffering of drywall victims. Critics say the bill lacks the bite necessary to carry out provisions it calls for.
The act was passed New Year’s night and awaits President Barack Obama’s signature. Lee County has often been called the epicenter of the drywall problem, with at least 1,500 homes affected.
The measure aims to prevent unsafe drywall from entering the U.S. market by labeling it with the manufacturer and date of manufacture; and by banning any drywall with a sulfur content high enough to cause corrosion. The drywall emits sulfur compounds that corrode metal items in the home, and homeowners complain of health problems. The act says defective drywall cannot be reused. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is charged with developing and enforcing the rules.
The act also calls for the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to “insist” the Chinese government bring manufacturers of drywall to the table to hammer out a remedy for affected residents, and China tell companies that made and exported the drywall to submit to U.S. court jurisdiction. China is known to have an ownership interest in some of the drywall companies.
“We can’t let the Chinese manufacturers off the hook,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, a leader in the drywall fight, in a statement provided by spokesman Bryan Gulley. “This bill aims to keep up the pressure on them to do right by consumers.”
The defective drywall was imported mainly between 2004 and 2008. The product has a foul smell and corrodes air conditioning coils, electrical wiring, appliances, jewelry, TVs, plumbing fixtures, computers, coins and other metal items. Some of the health complaints are headaches, nosebleeds and respiratory problems.
Florida has the highest number of drywall homes, followed by Louisiana, but the defective product is found in thousands of homes in 42 states, Puerto Rico, American Samoa and Washington, D.C.
Critics say insisting the Chinese government take action is a far cry from having the authority to compel. The government has so far thumbed its nose at any U.S. attempts to bring it to the negotiating table or make it accountable.
Richard Kampf of Cape Coral, who led a grass-roots group of more than 350 drywall homeowners, doesn’t think much of the act. “No. 1, it’s extremely weak,” he said.
Another problem is it gives the responsibility to the Consumer Product Safety Commission to come up with the rules, and gives them two years to do it, he said. “This is an agency that has failed us once already.”
Kampf and other homeowners were upset the commission’s protocol for fixing the drywall did not involve removing corroded electrical wiring, which the homeowners considered a fire hazard. The “gold standard” protocol issued by federal Judge Eldon Fallon of New Orleans, who presides over about 10,000 drywall lawsuits in multi-district litigation, is more stringent and requires removal of wiring.
It is also unknown how much sulfur content will be the threshold for banning the drywall from U.S. markets, and how the commission will enforce the rules.
“Rules can be bent, they can be broken, they can be ignored,” Kampf said.
The main questions victims have is “When is my house going to be fixed? When am I going to get my money? When am I going to get my life?” he said. “This safety act doesn’t do any of that.”
Commission spokesman Scott Wolfson said the federal agency will not have comment on the bill until the president signs it into law.
Russ Herman, a lead attorney for thousands of plaintiffs in multidistrict litigation, said the act is a step in getting justice for victims.
“It’s not a toothless dog and not just a barking dog,” he said. The act validates the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, and especially multidistrict courts under federal jurisdiction, as the avenue to address consumer action about defective product issues, he said.
It’s also a morale booster for about 4,000 consumers who have Taishan drywall or drywall from other companies that are effectively controlled by the Chinese government, he said.
Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin, a major manufacturer of Chinese wallboard owned by the German conglomerate Knauf Gips, is the only company that has agreed to pay for fixing some homes built with its drywall. About 2,900 homes have been fixed so far, Herman said, including several in Lee County.
“On behalf of 4,000 consumers and congresspersons and senators in the Gulf states and the Eastern seaboard, we hope that the president in his wisdom will sign off on the bill,” he said.