By Chuck Strouse
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Lawsuits filed in the States take aim at Florida builders, suppliers, and subcontractors as well as the manufacturers. Jeremy Alters, the Miami-based lawyer, says that's no accident. "It's easy to point at the manufacturers, but to me, builders have every bit as much culpability in this," Alters says. "It's awfully hard to believe they were buying this quantity of Chinese drywall, putting it in homes, and not knowing what was going on."
The two biggest Florida homebuilders — WCI and Lennar — both deny they knew there was any problem with the Chinese drywall.
But some evidence seems to point to the contrary. One smoking gun comes from Richard Kampf, a retired EPA chief of staff from Cape Coral. Kampf was one of the first homeowners to complain about Chinese drywall, in 2007. His builder, Aranda Homes, responded by sending him a letter that the company had received from Knauf, the Chinese manufacturer.
The letter notes that Knauf hired a firm called Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health to test the drywall and that the group found Knauf products did contain "a difference in smell" but there was no health risk.
It was the date on the study that intrigued Kampf. The letter was sent November 29, 2006, about two years before news broke of the problems with Chinese drywall.
"That means they'd already been receiving complaints about this stuff long before 2006, in enough quantity that they had to hire a firm to test for it," Kampf says. "They knew this stuff was bad, and they kept right on shipping it. And Florida builders kept right on using it."
Even since state authorities learned of the problem, little has been done to question whether developers knew in advance. Developers are, after all, the most politically connected industry in Florida. Lennar, its subsidiaries, and its executives have donated tens of thousands to politicians, from President Obama to the Republican Party of Florida.
And the National Association of Home Builders, the chief lobbying group for the industry, counts six of Florida's U.S. House members among its list of biggest cash recipients — including both Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart from Miami, according to Open Secrets, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that tracks donations.
In the clearest evidence of that influence in the drywall saga, emails between state and county health officials and the EPA in late 2008 and early 2009 show they relied on Lennar for all the early information about the problem.
The emails, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Fort Myers News-Press, show how government regulators have been on the side of developers. "'Sweeps Week' is coming this month. It might allow the TV news to be more sensational, but I think we will want to put the word out through the media this month — so that we (and the responsible home builder) can control the message," Henry Slack, a top EPA official based in Atlanta, writes in an email to Florida officials. "I'd suggest we offer to coordinate publicity with the lab and this builder," he continues, referring to Lennar.
Lennar's Miami spokesman, Marshall Ames, wouldn't answer questions from New Times but sent an emailed response that said the company "regrets any inconvenience" caused by Chinese drywall. The email said Lennar has offered to pay to relocate homeowners and put them up temporarily while their homes are repaired. But the email noted no government agency has determined that Chinese drywall is a health threat. It also denied Lennar knew of problems with the drywall in advance. "At the time of installation, we were not aware of the origin of the defective drywall or any problems," Ames wrote. "We have implemented strict controls to ensure the use of domestic drywall in our homes."
The other major Florida builder, WCI, declared bankruptcy in August 2008. The National Association of Home Builders declined to comment.
A few Florida politicians have been vocal about Chinese drywall. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has called for FEMA funds for victims and has helped create a drywall caucus. But on both state and federal levels, little real legislation or funding has passed to help those with the toxic material in their homes.
"We are trying, but it's a very confusing issue," says Republican state Sen. Mike Bennett. The Bradenton politician says he plans to push for a drywall task force in the next session. "We have to get to the bottom of what the problem is before we can solve it."
Aronberg, Bennett's Senate colleague, has a less prosaic take:
"It's inertia, and it's a sheer lack of political will holding us back."
Nick DeSola's footsteps echo through his vast and empty Boynton Beach house as he stomps up to the second floor. Everything is gone.
The floors are stripped to the spotty concrete base. Rough wood frames brace the pitched ceiling. Only an untouched porcelain toilet remains, sitting alone in the ghost of a bathroom. Even the wiring has been ripped out.
As far as DeSola knows, this was the only way to get rid of the Knauf-made drywall and the fumes that ruined his dream home.