|By Robert McCoppin, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jan. 15, 2012--Sunlight still bathes the mosaic tile, terra-cotta fountain and potted palms at the Hotel InterContinental's iconic indoor pool. But no bathers ripple the water. Stuck in regulatory purgatory, the pool has been closed since October.
The junior Olympic-sized pool is one of the better-known in the city and once drew famous visitors like "Tarzan" star Johnny Weissmuller. Now, it's among nearly 300 public pools across Illinois still listed as noncompliant with federal regulations designed to reduce the risk of swimmers being sucked into drains and drowning.
Hotel officials say their pool will reopen soon. And many of the other facilities are outdoors and would be closed in winter, anyway. But with so many affected sites, expensive fixes and delays in getting state approval, some pool operators wonder if they'll be ready come spring.
"There is a tremendous amount of frustration," said Carvin DiGiovanni, spokesman for the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals. "It's a bureaucratic nightmare. People are looking for direction."
State officials answer that pool operators have only themselves to blame because the regulations took effect in 2008 and the state enforced a deadline of last Oct. 1. And they say the horrific deaths of swimmers getting sucked into pool drains, while relatively few, justify the Virginia Graeme Baker Act, named for a 7-year-old who died in such an accident.
From 1997 to 2010, federal statistics show, 97 people were trapped by pool and hot tub drains. Twelve died; others suffered serious injuries. Most were children, and many of the deaths occurred where drain covers were missing or damaged, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said.
The law requires drains to be fitted with larger covers and backup systems. It affects all public pools and spas, including those at apartment and condo complexes, hotels and health clubs.
Since the law went into effect, the commission first removed the backup requirement, then reinstated it, bowing to pressure from the industry and then to safety advocates.
Then last year, the commission discovered that about 1 million newly approved drain covers did not meet the new safety tests and were recalled.
Among those that had to replace their new covers was the Northbrook Park District, though Director of Parks and Properties Ed Dalton said it was a relatively minor headache compared with the state permitting process. The district submitted its plans to the Illinois Department of Public Health in March 2010, but after some changes were required, it is still awaiting final approval.
Some of the new rules are highly technical. One, aimed at preventing hair entanglement, requires that the distance between the drain and the top of the drainage pipes be at least 1.5 times the pipes' diameter. To comply, some operators must dig out the bottom of their pools and move the pipes.
Dalton expects costs to reach about $35,000 per pool. Because of differing rule interpretations, one pool has had five plan revisions.
"That's what's been so frustrating. If we would've had the permit in October, we could have gotten this work completed," Dalton said. "I don't fault the state. They're trying to get it right; we're trying to get it right."
But he fears not being ready to open in spring. State officials said permit approval typically takes two months, but if any changes are required, an application goes to the bottom of the list.
Public agencies must then seek competing bids, award a contract to do the work, then get a final inspection, which can take another two months.
After spending about $500,000 to fix 29 pools, the Chicago Park District has 48 more that still need to be fixed, spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner said. Officials plan to have all pools ready to open for this year's swim season.
At Chicago Public Schools, 16 pools have closed because of the regulations, forcing students to go to neighboring facilities. Several have been upgraded and await approval, spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus said.
State health department spokeswoman Sabrina Miller notes the agency has 20 inspectors for 4,000 licensed pools. She agreed the new law has caused considerable delays but noted that pool operators have had four years to comply and received multiple warnings.
"So no one should be upset with us," Miller said, "because there's been every effort made to be clear about what they needed to do by Oct. 1."
(c)2012 the Chicago Tribune
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