State pools often stay open after failed tests
Health inspectors’ findings ignored; water quality frequently bad
State-run swimming pools regularly failed water-quality tests over the past five years, but have nevertheless often been kept open in defiance of powerless health inspectors and at likely risk to the public.
Of 175 inspections of public swimming pools and spray decks operated by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, two-thirds documented at least one water-quality violation, and a still-higher proportion reported a variety of other health code infractions, according to a Globe review of state inspections from 2006 through last year.
The inspections noted chemical imbalances that can cause dangerously murky water and a range of health problems, from water-borne illnesses to skin and lung irritation. But because the local and state inspectors who evaluate pool safety work for the state Department of Public Health and have no authority over DCR pool managers, warnings often went unheeded. In at least 30 instances, pools remained open with violations that under state policies warranted immediate closure.
The findings alarmed safety advocates who said the high rate of inspection failures is a stark indictment of the 47 pools and other water facilities run by the DCR, which came under intense scrutiny this summer after a Fall River woman drowned in water so cloudy it concealed her body for two days on the pool floor.
“It really shows that the pool managers are doing a pathetic job,’’ said Thomas M. Lachocki, chief executive of the National Swimming Pool Foundation, a nonprofit group that trains and certifies pool operators. “If you’re not maintaining water quality, the risk of disease goes up, as well as the risk of drowning.’’
State officials say they are working to address the problems, and that in May they struck an agreement for yearly inspections and better compliance from pool managers.
“I think the department acknowledges that this number of violations is not acceptable to us,’’ said Edward M. Lambert Jr., commissioner of the DCR.
Richard K. Sullivan Jr., the state’s environmental secretary and former head of the DCR, acknowledged that a lack of meaningful oversight created a self-policing culture and a “belief that the system ran itself and didn’t necessarily have to open itself up to inspection.’’
A 2001 opinion by the state attorney general’s office declared that health inspectors had no legal authority over the pools, and oversight splintered.
Sullivan said the Patrick administration has made a concerted effort to improve pool water quality by stepping up training and pouring millions of dollars into upgrades.
Water quality, and managers’ response to problems, have shown gains in recent years, according to inspection records. In 2006 and 2007, just 15 percent of pools passed a water-quality inspection. Over the following three years, that figure climbed to 36 percent. In many cases, pool managers agreed to close when water quality was poor.
Still, there have been notable exceptions. An inspector “strongly recommended’’ closing the Olsen spray deck, a water park for small children in Hyde Park, in July last year because the chlorine level was 25 times what is allowed, according to the inspection records. But managers did not immediately close it, the inspector wrote.
In 2008, a state inspector found far too little chlorine in a Brighton pool, and recommended it close until the problem was corrected.
“Pool was not closed,’’ the inspector wrote.
In Fall River this summer, investigators concluded the murky water prevented lifeguards from seeing 36-year-old Marie Joseph slip below the pool surface. Three pool employees resigned over the incident, which sparked widespread outrage, and a Fall River health inspector was fired for approving the pool for use while Joseph’s body lay at the bottom.
Some safety advocates say that incentives to keep pools open, particularly during hot spells, can be intense. And though some pool managers have voluntarily closed to clear up safety issues, some may feel “too much pressure to let things go,’’ said Thomas Carbone, president of the Massachusetts Health Officers Association and director of public health in Andover.
In 2006, an inspector who found that a Lowell pool had five times the maximum allowable amount of chlorine noted in a report that “DCR management is forcing the pool manager to keep the pool open even when there is no clarity in the pool and the pool chemicals are dangerously out of balance.’’
Strict oversight is the only cure for such problems, critics say. Before the attorney general’s 2001 ruling, that oversight had been long provided by health inspectors, said Suzanne Condon, associate commissioner of the DPH.
There was a “lack of consistency in terms of addressing violations,’’ Condon said.
In recent years, some cities and towns that had sent local health inspectors to state-run pools, simply stopped.
“We don’t have jurisdiction to tell them what to do, and they don’t have to listen to us,’’ said Amanda Wilson, director of health inspections in Worcester, which stopped inspecting state pools this year. “So it was sort of a waste of time.’’
Michele Hlavsa, chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Healthy Swimming Program, said an analysis of more than 120,000 pool inspections in four states found that 12 percent had serious violations, such as a lack of disinfectant in the water.
“It’s troubling,’’ she said. “What’s happening when the pool inspector is not there?’’
Nationwide, hospitalizations for three common waterborne diseases cost the health care system as much as $539 million annually, the CDC estimates.
In Fall River, the pool opened for the summer on a Saturday in June, but by the next day it had turned murky. The chlorinator had shut off, and pool staff were balancing the water chemistry manually, a DCR investigation found. Yet the pool stayed open.
Unable to correct the problem, managers closed the deep end of the pool at 3:30 p.m. on June 26.
But Marie Joseph had already drowned, 12 minutes earlier.
The next day, as Joseph’s body lay on the bottom, pool staff reported no problems.
“Good opening weekend,’’ a DCR operations report stated. “No incidents or issues reported and facility looks great.’’
Globe correspondent Matt Byrne contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.