Illinois Lawmaker seeks relief for facilities

Illinois Lawmaker seeks relief for facilities

Lawmaker Seeks Relief for Noncompliant Facilities

By Dan Schechner

One of the states most active in implementing federal safety measures may allow pools to open this season regardless of whether they comply with the law.

Illinois Rep. Jason Barickman (R-Champaign) has introduced a bill that would provide temporary relief to scores of public and semipublic facilities that have shown good faith in moving toward compliance with the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, but have been held up by bureaucratic or financial roadblocks.

“While I understand the reason behind the law, it’s a mandate on local governments that some just have not been able to meet,” Barickman said. “Some communities in my district have had troubles with state regulators, and this bill was an effort to give those communities more time to be in compliance.”

At the moment, nearly 300 public vessels are prevented from opening because they remain in violation of VGB and a related state law, according to Sabrina Miller, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health. However, many have already submitted plans for approval and are simply awaiting the go-ahead to begin making repairs.

If passed, House Bill 3890 would grant those facilities a reprieve until October 2012, provided they had filed permit requests prior to last October.

Illinois has been one of the states most vocally supportive of VGB. It was U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, who called for an investigation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission that led to last year’s massive drain cover recall. The state also passed the Illinois Swimming Facility Act in 2010, which prompted public health officials to begin enforcing anti-entrapment provisions.

On Oct. 1, 2011, the state public health department made news when it ordered 530 pools and spas closed after missing the state’s deadline. However, officials believe they gave ample time for compliance. In fact, the state’s pool and spa safety law was on the books for 1½ years before officials began enforcing it.

“The department sought to allow its many noncompliant licensees sufficient time to become compliant,” Miller said. “Subsequently, [the public health department] determined that it needed to establish a clear deadline to prevent a small number of remaining noncompliant facilities from continuing to operate in violation.”

This latest measure underscores an issue that has frustrated operators nationwide — the pace at which public health officials have processed permit requests for VGB-related fixes.

In the Chicago suburb of Buffalo Grove, Ill., administrators at the Highland Park Hospital Health and Fitness Center have waited more than 12 weeks for the state to approve its repair plans for two whirlpool baths.

“We all understand the work that needs to be done,” said fitness manager David Wischmeyer. “There’s just frustration with the length of time it’s taken. We’ve submitted paperwork for the repairs, and right now we’re just waiting on the state to come back and approve the work. It’s been a challenging process.”

The whirlpools have been out of operation since fall, Wischmeyer added. As a result, the club has lost nearly a dozen members, most of them seniors who couldn’t prolong their therapy any further.

In the meantime, officials at the CPSC continue to promote a zero-tolerance approach toward noncompliance with VGB. Chairwoman Inez Tenenbaum, who arrived at the agency in June 2009, has reiterated that all public facilities in violation of the law risk immediate closure, regardless of the reasons for delay.

“There may be a perspective at the state level, but that does not change the perspective of this federal agency,” said Scott Wolfson, a CPSC spokesman. “[Tenenbaum] was abundantly clear, from the day she walked into this agency, that there were no excuses for not being in compliance with the pool and spa safety act.”