Ottawa covered up leaky condo, MP claims

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

It knew about problems with insulation regulations since 1980, a Delta MP says

Peter O’Neil, with research by Vancouver Sun librarian KateBird

CREDIT: Glenn Baglo, Vancouver Sun files The federal government won’t discuss leaky condos because of a lawsuit by a group of owners.

OTTAWA – The federal Liberal government was accused Wednesday of covering up its alleged complicity in the $1.5-billion leaky condo crisis in B.C. after the government released hundreds of whited-out pages of internal documents and correspondence on the issue.

Conservative MP John Cummins, citing internal documents he obtained earlier this year, alleges the government was aware starting in 1980 that stringent federal home insulation requirements brought in to save energy prevented houses in wet climates — particularly in B.C. and Newfoundland — from “breathing” and drying out quickly after rainfall.

But Industry Minister David Emerson, responding to Cummins’ formal request in May for follow-up answers about those documents, said earlier this week there will be no more answers because leaky condo owners are suing the federal government.

“The government is attempting to hide [its failure to prevent the condo crisis] by claiming the issue is before the courts,” Cummins told the House of Commons Wednesday, rising to allege that his right as an MP to defend his constituents’ interests has been violated.

“Members of Parliament deserve better. This House deserves the truth. It has been misled, Mr. Speaker.”

Speaker Peter Milliken called the complaint “serious” and said he will make a ruling as soon as possible.

The hundreds of pages of whited-out internal documents were released this month after Cummins (Delta-Richmond East) filed an Access to Information request demanding all internal memos and e-mails relating to his own May 17, 2005, formal request for answers from Emerson.

Virtually everything but Cummins’ questions, a Richmond Review report on the issue, and various salutations and bureaucrats’ names at the start of e-mails and memos were blanked out under the authority of a section of the Access to Information Act permitting bureaucrats to keep secret documents relating to “consultations or deliberations.”

Cummins has already filed a formal complaint with Information Commissioner John Reid, asking him to determine if the act was violated.

The federal government has never acknowledged any liability on the matter, although it has provided nominal assistance to some homeowners. The internal documents released earlier this year were not available when former premier Dave Barrett did two major reports on the crisis between 1998-2000.

Cummins said he believes federal officials were aware in the early 1980s that a problem with conservation programs and the National Building Code were emerging, but buried those concerns because the potential liability costs were too high.

The documents include:

– An Aug. 4, 1981 internal memo produced by officials from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., the federal housing agency, pointed to problems emerging at the time in Newfoundland.

“This condition demands early action by builders and homeowners, otherwise, early deterioration by rot of wood frame houses in Newfoundland, and most likely other parts of Canada, will reach major proportions,” the memo stated.

“Being aware of the problem, CMHC could be delinquent in not bringing appropriate aspects of it to the attention of others.”

The memo, signed by four officials, also cited a “public relations” concern.

“The issues are sensitive and management should be aware of the severity of the possible problems resulting from early deterioration.”

– An Aug. 27, 1981, letter from then-CMHC president R.V. Hession to John Johnson, at the time B.C.’s deputy minister of lands, parks, and housing, to make the B.C. government aware of its concerns.

“There is an apparent close relation between energy conservation attempts and high levels of moisture accumulation,” Hession wrote.

“In some cases, structural deterioration of the wall has resulted. The worst conditions have been encountered in the coastal areas, but there is insufficient evidence to conclude that the problem is confined to those regions.”

– A letter was written on Dec. 1, 1987, to the deputy of the federal government’s National Research Council, from J.C. Currie, then the director of the building standards branch at the B.C. government’s municipal affairs ministry.

Complaining about the National Building Code and energy conservation requirements, he argued that the federal government pushed for air-tight insulation without fully considering the consequences.

“At present, incongruous though it may seem, it may actually be causing health problems, and also be creating the potential for some early structural failures,” Currie wrote.

The documents obtained by Cummins don’t include follow-up memos ultimately explaining what the federal government did in response to the warnings. His list of questions to Emerson pushes for those answers.

Cummins included in his statement Wednesday a reference to a 2001 letter written by Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh, then the B.C. premier, calling on emergency federal aid to help thousands of homeowners suffering from “this horrific human tragedy.”

There are dozens of lawsuits making their way through B.C. courts by homeowners who have faced huge repair costs and in some cases personal bankruptcy over the disaster.

Vancouver lawyer John Singleton, whose law firm specializes in construction law, announced earlier this month that he believes there is enough evidence to successfully fight a class-action suit against CMHC. He said he is looking for an ideal plaintiff before launching the case.

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

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