Washington, DC — Some aquatics facilities are still scrambling to comply with the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act (VGB) as the summer swim season approaches. Additional local and state laws, as well as public pool budget crunches, make compliance complicated for some sites.
“VGB was the first federal regulation on pools,” says Tracynda Davis, director of environmental health programs for the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF). “Some of the issues with that is that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is supposed to enforce VGB, but states are coming up with their own legislation. We're really seeing a broad spectrum, and if a state isn't doing something, a county might be, especially around bigger cities. It's often easier to get local ordinances through the local board of health than through the state legislative processes.”
The CPSC has said that it's relying on states to co-enforce the law. When states or counties pass their own laws, enforcement essentially becomes a local matter, says Steve Barnes, chair of the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals (APSP) Technical Committee.
“Texas is considering VGB legislation. So is California. Las Vegas has already written some,” he says. “The Las Vegas health department wrote rules that pools must comply with VGB, so now it's on the books, and they have the authority to enforce local legislation in VGB compliance.”
He said that in Los Angeles County, CA, local officials are requiring that pools be drained before they're inspected, even though the area is experiencing a drought.
“About 80 percent of the retrofits a diver can do under water, so there's no reason to drain an Olympic-sized swimming pool,” Barnes says. “So now a $500 upgrade turns into a $20,000 upgrade.”
High price tags are causing problems for municipal pool operators during the tight economy, says Davis.
“It's a huge part that's missing from the federal law, and these municipal facilities need to come up with money when their budgets are already tight, and it might mean they have to shut down pools,” she says.
The NSPF is advising rec center and city pools to contact their local jurisdictions for guidance on funding retrofits.
“For municipal pools, the act caught people off guard — everyone wants to comply, but they didn't budget and they're asking, ‘What do we do?’” says Carvin DiGiovanni, senior director of technical, standards, APSP. “In affluent communities, they are able to sustain, but other communities could suffer from tax dollar shortages and may have to go to their cities for help, or even close the pools.”
Public pool operators in cities such as Greenwich, CT, and Toledo, OH, are grappling with closing pools, either temporarily or for the entire summer.
“Some municipal pools are saying they just can't comply,” Barnes says. “If something happens at a public pool, will they fine the city?”
Kathleen Reilly, public affairs specialist for the CPSC, says no aquatics facilities have been fined for non-compliance, even though the commission is authorized to issue fines up to $15 million.
Barnes says he doesn't believe the million-dollar fines are aimed at pool operators but rather at parts manufacturers.
“Generally speaking, the big fines are not for your YMCAs or park pools — it's more to get big corporations' attention,” Barnes says.
A waiting period for necessary parts also is still preventing some pools from complying with the VGB Act.
“We're doing VGB compliance now — the place where we get our grates is out of the size we need,” says Tara Murphy, aquatics director at Genesis Health Clubs in Wichita, KS. “I called the city and said we can't do it because the parts aren't in. I also just read in the local paper that the city is cutting back on people who test the public pool water [because of] budget problems. This couldn't come at a worse time with the economy.”
The problem with available parts isn't limited to the Midwest, Davis says. “There's been a nationwide problem with drains being available,” she says. “A lot of folks aren't coming forth to admit it if they're not compliant. Now the CPSC is saying that everyone needs to prove due diligence to show that they're trying to comply.”
Pool operators can put themselves on back order to document their efforts, Davis notes, although she says some states, such as Massachusetts, won't renew annual pool permits unless the operators can show VGB compliance.
Barnes says he's also seeing problems with new drain covers being incorrectly installed, or the right size covers not being used on existing drain openings. He's also hearing about pool part manufacturers lobbying state legislatures to have their specific parts included in local laws.
“Manufacturers are going into the Texas legislature and trying to get them to require use of certain products,” he says. “Those kinds of things make it difficult. I think our industry changed permanently as a result of VGB.”