By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Liao lights a cheap cigarette and stares for a minute at the buildings. Bulky columns of pale smoke billow into bracing air.
Outside the window is a long, white sign. In sky-blue English letters, it reads: KNAUF. Behind the security gate, a two-story, tin-roofed factory stretches four city blocks straight back to a murky pond. Garage-sized piles of white, powdery gypsum litter the yard. Trucks motor out of the front gate loaded with hundreds of palettes of drywall, the sturdy heart of most new American homes.
Finally, Liao nods. His partner, Gao, waves a car through and then listens.
"Some people indeed say that the drywall Knauf Tianjin produces is toxic," Liao says cautiously in soft Mandarin. "Everyone in the company has heard about it."
In fact, this bustling factory is the epicenter of a global consumer disaster that reaches all the way to South Florida. Since at least 2004, hundreds of thousands of pounds of tainted drywall passed through these gates on the way to new homes in the United States.
Before '04, Chinese businesses like Knauf Tianjin had rarely exported drywall to the States. But then a housing bubble inflated the demand of homes and depleted construction supplies. In South Florida, dozens of new condo towers sprouted along every stretch of beach and bay front, and hundreds of new golf-course-centered suburbs sprouted from Florida City to Jupiter.
The market exploded so quickly that American gypsum mines and drywall makers simply couldn't keep up. Chinese-based companies like Knauf gladly filled the void, and it sent drywall the company eventually knew was faulty.
The Chinese drywall passed through South Florida ports with virtually no inspections. Developers claim they didn't know that the imported drywall was flawed when they installed it in as many as 100,000 homes nationwide. But homeowners began reporting problems immediately. Air conditioners failed every two months; electrical outlets corroded to black powder; homeowners suffered constant nosebleeds and persistent coughs.
Now they blame the drywall made in China, and the discovery has set off a yearlong chain reaction like something out of a John Grisham novel. Law firms have scrambled to sue everyone from the Chinese government to tiny South Florida subcontractors. Scientists have dissected drywall samples, blaming everything from radioactive materials to feces-tainted water. Congress has held hearings. Insurance companies have set aside tens of millions to deal with the cleanup.
No one admits to doing anything wrong. The builders, suppliers, and contractors are hiding behind lawyers. The state is waiting idly by for someone to decide exactly what's wrong while protecting politically connected developers. And the Chinese manufacturers can rest easy in the knowledge that it's all but impossible for U.S. homeowners to sue Chinese businesses.
"The only people taking any initiative are trial lawyers," says state Sen. Dave Aronberg, whose proposed state task force on drywall never got out of committee. "The government has dragged its feet on testing, the state has not acted... and there's been no real legislation."
But there's plenty of blame to go around. A New Times investigation, with reporting from a freelance writer in Beijing, has found that some of the Chinese manufacturers who made the tainted drywall are still producing it by the truckload — likely without any new safeguards in place. And if these manufacturers deserve the blame, so do the builders, the contractors, and the suppliers who had documented evidence at least as early as 2006 that something was wrong with the drywall.
Interviews with a half-dozen people who have lived with the drywall illustrate one other undeniable fact: Hundreds of ordinary families have been torn apart by the toxic product, forced into an impossible choice between abandoning their mortgages — and killing their financial futures — or staying in homes that might just be killing them.
Wendy Senior knew that the townhouse was perfect before it was even finished.
By 2006, Senior and her fiancé, Lucianil Mendez, had spent more than a year looking at homes around Miami-Dade. A pretty Dominican-born sales rep with long jet-black hair and thick, black-framed glasses, Senior found a nearly finished Lennar Corp. subdivision just east of Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport. She loved the pitched, red-tile roofs, the pool and gym, and the sense of community. She imagined her 8-year-old, Giovanni, riding his bike between the Mediterranean-style houses. "It had everything," Senior says. "We decided that this is where we would start our family."
Senior initially liked the neighborhood so much that she talked her mom, Delores Gonzalez, and her sister, Maribella Lemus, into buying townhomes in the same development, right down the street.
The couple closed the deal August 25, 2006, for $320,590. They moved in the next day, and Wendy immediately noticed an odd odor — a biting, industrial scent. "Our Lennar contact told us it was just a 'new house smell,' " Senior says. "We didn't think anything else about it. It was just a really happy day for us."
But by the second half of 2007, Senior's whole extended family was growing exasperated with the same litany of problems. Air conditioners broke every few months. Electrical outlets corroded. Nosebleeds, coughs, and constant allergies swept through the neighborhood.