Answers are still scarce on the defective drywall problem plaguing South Florida and other Gulf and Atlantic building markets. But Coastal Connection heard this week from one contractor for whom the Chinese drywall situation represents both a problem and an opportunity. Remodeler John Pelland works in South Florida, as well as in the Detroit, Michigan, suburbs. Pelland's Fort Myers, Florida, condominium was built with Chinese drywall, which he is planning to remove and replace soon. But Pelland, through his company, Accent Construction & Remodeling, is also gearing up to take on as much drywall remediation work as he can handle for other south Florida homeowners. Pelland was working in Michigan when the drywall story hit the news. When he got back to Florida, he said, it took only a few minutes to figure out that his condo was affected. "One of the first signs was that the microwave stopped working," he says. "The copper line leading to the air handler in the closet was black. Then I pulled off some plug covers and all the ground wires were black. And chrome on the faucets was all pitting and corroding. And we started noticing more of the odor in a couple rooms — not a rotten egg smell, more of a burnt match smell. And people in the other units in our building were seeing problems too." Pelland says he notified the condo's builder, Meritage, about the issue in March. But he says Meritage has not responded, and that the builder's grace period under Florida's right-to-repair law (" Chapter 558") has passed. "I was dumbfounded not to even get a letter back," he says. Pelland and his neighbors are now pondering their legal options, and he's talking to people in his building and his neighborhood about how to go about tearing out and replacing all of their drywall and the other damaged components. Cost will be a significant factor in that discussion, Pelland notes. A trained accountant as well as an experienced hands-on remodeling contractor, Pelland likes to do detailed estimates on spreadsheets. Every house is different, he points out, but so many people have asked him for ballpark numbers that he has worked up a generic spreadsheet for a mid-range 2000-sqft house that needs demo and replacement of drywall, insulation, trim, carpets, and air conditioning equipment. Wiring, he figures, may just need to be cleaned. "You can scrape the black deposit off the exposed wire ends," he says. "But you can't clean the receptacles and switches — you have to replace those." Pelland figures the job at about $40/sqft, or $80k for the 2000-sqft unit. The figure discourages a lot of people, he says. "A lot of people have less equity than that in the house," he observes. "Some of them are thinking of just walking away from it." Others are hoping that one of the many lawsuits now in progress in Florida will pay off for them and allow them to finance the work. Banks, says Pelland, may end up just stripping and gutting the homes and putting them on the market as shells for somebody to re-finish however they want. In the short run, Pelland says, his best market for remediation work is people who have a reason to sell, and have enough equity in their properties to justify investing the money it will take to put their houses into livable condition. For now, Pelland is taking a go-slow approach, and hoping that the state or Federal government will step in with guidelines for remediation, including disposal, worker protection, and other touchy issues. And he's not inspecting homes himself — "I see a conflict of interest in going in and evaluating the problem for somebody, and then also selling them my services to fix it," he says. Instead, he refers callers to an independent inspector, Daniel Reid of Intuitive Environmental Solutions in Fort Myers. "After they get inspected and find out the scope of the problem," says Pelland, "I'll give them a price on the work that has to be done. And if they want to go with some other contractor, that's fine." But Pelland expects to have plenty of work to do. "Hopefully," he says, "I'll be able to do some good for some people, and have enough work to pay my own bills, too." Official Channels
Meanwhile, the politics of the issue are heating up, and the unanswered questions about the defective drywall are beginning to resound with greater intensity in the nation's capital. Florida Senator Bill Nelson urged President Obama to raise the topic with Chinese leaders on his planned visit to China this fall. Representative Robert Wexler of Boca Raton has urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to mention the problem on her visit to China this week to discuss climate issues. And U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) officials told a Senate committee that a delegation from China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ), the Chinese version of a CPSC, will be visiting the U.S. in June to study the problem. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune has an overview here (" The week that saw drywall snowball," by Aaron Kessler). The U.S. Senate held hearings May 21, with testimony from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official Elizabeth Southerland, CPSC official Lori Saltzman, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) official Dr. Michael McGeehin, and Florida State Toxicologist Dr. David Krause. The witnesses had little new information for Senators, while the legislators mainly used the occasion to pressure the bureaucrats to take more energetic action (video is posted here -- slide the timer to the 18 minute mark for the start of the session). The EPA did announce earlier in the week that samples of Chinese drywall contained elevated levels of sulfur, strontium, and organic material, reports the Miami Herald (" EPA: Chinese drywall has high levels of chemicals," by Nirvi Shah). This confirms the results of testing already conducted for the State of Florida at an independent Illinois laboratory, as noted by Coastal Connection on April 15th (" Chinese Drywall Problem Spreads Along Gulf Coast").