Drywall Woes May Come Roaring Back After Storms

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By Martina Barash

The problems with Chinese-made drywall that plagued the rebuilding after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita could recur in the wake of this year’s storms, a homeowners’ attorney says.

But a new law and revised quality standards have come out since then. That should help prevent a repeat of the situation that left thousands of Southern homeowners with large appliance and interior repair bills tied to sulfuric off-gassing, according to the leader of a U.S. drywall makers’ group, the Gypsum Association.

Meanwhile, the Consumer Product Safety Commission “is monitoring the marketplace,” agency spokeswoman Patty Davis said in a Sept. 21 email to Bloomberg BNA.

U.S.-made drywall contains very pure gypsum and doesn’t emit corrosive gases, plaintiffs’ attorney Russ Herman told Bloomberg BNA. But there may not be enough of it to go around, with all the rebuiding required in Texas, Florida, and elsewhere after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, he said.

Builders “won’t have a choice” and will have to turn to imported drywall, just as they did after the storms in 2005, he said.

Herman is with Herman, Herman & Katz LLC in new Orleans. He has represented homeowners whose Chinese drywall allegedly damaged fixtures, appliances, wiring, computers and other items, requiring considerable reconstruction in some cases.

Stephen H. Meima, executive director and CEO of the Gypsum Association in Hyattsville, Md., said the group’s members are “responding suitably.”

Each manufacturer runs its own wallboard plants, he said. “I’m sure they’re all doing what they do as individual manufacturers to respond to the needs” in the areas affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, he said. “They know what’s going on out there.”

Phillip A. Wittman of Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann in New Orleans represented homebuilders in litigation over the Chinese drywall. “I don’t imagine my clients will be buying Chinese drywall,” he told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 21.

Standards, Labeling

“Drywall sold in the U.S. is required to meet safety standards,” Davis, of the CPSC, said. “The standards were put in place to prevent problems experienced with imported drywall after Hurricane Katrina and Rita in 2005.”

Meima said the quality standards and labeling requirements will help this time around. Repairs “should be done with board that is known to be compliant” with the ASTM International voluntary standard for drywall, ASTM C1396, he said.

That provision limits sulfur content, Davis said.

“I would hope that type of situation would not happen again,” Meima said, referring to the off-gassing problems. “Rebuilders have to know they’re using board that’s compliant.”

Meima also pointed to the Drywall Safety Act of 2012, which “built in safeguards for identifying compliant board.” Labeling that includes the maker’s name and facility and the country of manufacture is required, he said. Ten different countries produce drywall, he said.

But China’s product regulators “pretend to regulate by stamping ‘ASTM,’” Herman asserted.

“What we have found in the Chinese drywall litigation is that the manufacture, shipping, labeling of drywall is virtually unregulated because it generates a terrific profit for the building corporations that control building products in China,” he said.

The importation and use of drywall is very complex, often involving a manufacturer, exporter, shipper, importer, distributor, contractor and drywall subcontractor, he said. “And it’s not tested when it enters the U.S.,” he said.

But there has been “no repeat of this issue since the ASTM drywall standards were put in place,” Davis said.

Heat, Humidity, Sulfur

The contaminated drywall cases arose from a shortage of building supplies during the reconstruction following Hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005, which also coincided with a housing boom, according to the court overseeing the consolidated multidistrict drywall litigation. Builders turned to Chinese sources for the product.

Later, however, homeowners began to complain of foul smells, property damage, and health problems. Many homes required significant rebuilding.

The heat and humidity found in the Southern states affected by Katrina and Rita “activated” the impurities, resulting in three types of sulfur compounds, according to Herman.

Silver and copper generally don’t corrode, Herman said. But they’re not impervious to sulfur. The sulfur emissions affected copper in air conditioning units, refrigerators, and microwaves, he said. Silver components of computers failed. And the cause of the damage often took some time to recognize.

Homeowners sued builders and various others in the chain of distribution, including two main sets of manufacturers. One set is Knauf Plasterboard (Taijin) Co., the subsidiary of a German company, and related entities.

The other is Taishan Gypsum and entities related to it, including Taian Taishan Plasterboard Co., which are controlled by large Chinese state-owned building materials corporations.

The Knauf companies made appearances in the litigation, created a pilot remediation program, and entered into a global class settlement in December 2011. Taishan Gypsum and TTP, however, largely avoided appearing in court, except to contest jurisdiction.

Some 3,000 to 4,000 homeowners haven’t been compensated, and those cases are still being litigated, Herman said.

Knauf and Taishan couldn’t be reached for comment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martina Barash in Washington at MBarash@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Patrick at spatrick@bna.com

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