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Seattle Area Apartment Projects Delayed by Mismarked Lumber

December 5, 1990

SEATTLE (AP) _ A mismarked piece of lumber was a warning to Greg Clarke that something was awry in the closely-guarded business of grading wood for the construction industry.

An angry Seattle lumber wholesaler telephoned Clarke’s MacDonald Inspection Services in Vancouver, British Columbia, early last month.

″He found spruce lumber that was marked as hemlock,″ Clarke said. ″The next day, we were down there.″

Since then, a search for substandard lumber carrying higher-grade marks has resulted in the closure by building inspectors of dozens of apartment-building construction projects in the Puget Sound area. Up to 60 projects have been shut down.

While builders, inspectors and engineers have worked to ferret out low- quality lumber and resume projects, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has started an investigation in British Columbia to find the source of the mismarked wood.

Costs to fix buildings are expected to run into the millions of dollars. However, inspectors and builders said there were no safety problems and the buildings would be built to code.

″We’re not looking at this as a significant structural problem right now,″ said Mike Dykeman, commercial inspection supervisor for King County Building and Land Development.

″Rather than a health and safety issue, I think what we have is a consumer fraud issue,″ Colin Quinn, Lincoln Property Co. vice president, said Tuesday. Mislabeled studs were found in a new, 192-unit Lincoln apartment complex.

Clarke and Tom Searles, executive vice president of the American Lumber Standards Committee in Germantown, Md., said the mislabeled lumber appeared to be limited to the Seattle area and to larger construction jobs.

The problem is with framing lumber generally considered No. 3 quality, but graded to indicate it is of No. 1 or No. 2 quality, and with spruce marked as more desirable hemlock or fir.

The lumber carries the MacDonald grading stamp, which is registered and licensed to mills. Marking lower-quality wood a higher grade can double its price.

Searles said the case was the biggest he could remember.

″People have copied grade stamps before, but it’s never been this blatant,″ he said, adding that the international lumber-grading system is zealously guarded and there have been few cases of fraud.

The most recent he could recall involved a truss plant in south Florida several years ago, where the manufacturer had illegally copied a stamp.

Searles said the mismarked wood was ″a very small percentage in the overall picture of things.″

The United States building industry imports 12 billion to 14 billion board feet of lumber a year from Canada, Searles said. Estimates of the mismarked timber involved range from 140,000 board feet to millions of board feet.

Dykeman said inspection agencies have asked builders to check records, inspect buildings and dig through waste-wood piles in search of suspect wood.

In some instances, plumbing, electric wiring and wallboard have had to be torn out to brace or replace mismarked lumber. The biggest problems arise with joists, horizontal beams that support floors or ceilings.

Dykeman said some projects have been shut down for six weeks and could be shut down eight more weeks.

Quinn said the apartment builders would go to court to push the losses they have sustained further up the chain of suppliers.

In Canada, the Mounted Police has said little about its search for culprits.

Chris Perkins, investigating officer, declined to provide details of the investigation, except to say it would be lengthy.

MacDonald Inspection Services has retrieved its grading stamps from two firms - Moga Timber Mill Ltd. and A.P. Timber Co., which market lumber from a single mill in Surrey.

The operations are owned by the Brar family. Brian Brar on Monday denied any wrongdoing. ″We will not tolerate any claims made against Moga or A.P. Timber,″ he said.

Lumber carrying stamps licensed to the mill was sent to the job sites in the Puget Sound area. However, it was shipped through B.B.M. Lakeview Lumber Ltd. of Surrey, which had sold it to lumber brokers in Seattle.

B.B.M. Lakeview this week did not return phone calls to The Associated Press. The company’s attorney said earlier his company was a victim and ″did nothing wrong.″

In a separate case, B.B.M. Lakeview pleaded guilty May 6, 1988, to defrauding the public in a case involving mismarked wood and was fined $100,000.

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