Chinese manufacturer worried about drywall in 2006

— A leading East Coast homebuilder worried about the malodorous Chinese drywall it was using in Florida homes in 2006, but didn’t alert most of its customers or government officials, according to court documents.

The concern was so great that WCI Communities at one point planned to tear out the drywall and rebuild. The company asked the manufacturer to replace the remaining shipment with American-made drywall, according to documents and sworn depositions in ongoing litigation obtained by the Herald-Tribune in Sarasota.

“It will be a big problem not only in Miami but all over the USA market, maybe cover thousand (sic) of houses,” a Chinese employee of the manufacturer wrote in a November 2006 e-mail to his bosses in Germany.

By October, WCI began demanding answers from Miami-based Banner Supply, the company that had sold it the wallboard material.

A month later, Banner executive Donald Coblentz sent an e-mail to a major U.S. drywall manufacturer saying he had a big problem.

“These companies are threatening to take all the drywall down in all the houses that are partially completed and ALL the houses that are hung & completed and replaced,” Coblentz wrote. “They are talking about removing people from their homes and putting them up in hotels and redoing all these houses.”

A deal was later struck to replace the remaining shipment with American-made drywall. The manufacturer said it conducted its own tests and determined that the material didn’t pose a health hazard.

The documents show WCI, the Chinese manufacturer and its German-based parent company, the drywall distributor and the Florida importer had some inkling there were problems with the drywall. Yet, none of the companies tried to see if the problem went beyond the handful of Florida complaints, according to the documents.

“We have a distributor that could have been a hero by letting everyone know it’s a problem,” said Ervin Gonzalez, the attorney for the plaintiffs suing several companies in a Miami lawsuit. “Instead, when they found out it was potentially dangerous, they didn’t tell their customers or consumers about it; that’s just wrong.”

A message left for a WCI spokeswoman, Connie Boyd, was not immediately returned Sunday. A voice message at Banner Supply said the company was closed for the weekend and a message could not be left.

Earlier this week, a judge ruled that a lawsuit filed over faulty Chinese drywall can proceed as a class action involving 152 homes in Miami-Dade County.

There are thousands of similar cases pending in several states.

Chinese drywall has been linked to possible health problems along with corrosion of wiring, air conditioning units, computers, doorknobs and jewelry. Homes often have to be gutted to fix the problem.

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