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New law forces some pools to pull plug

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KAI RYSSDAL: If the weather cooperates it’s going to be a big weekend for a good number of the 300,000 public swimming pools in this country — Memorial Day being the the unofficial start of summer. A lot of those pools, though, will stay empty for at least part of the season. In some places, like Philadelphia, there’s just no money to open up this early. In others, a new law has pool guys around the country working overtime. Lisa Napoli explains.

LISA NAPOLI: Sean Debley has been staring at a lot of pools filled with workmen instead of water. Debley’s a health inspector for Ventura County in Southern California. The reason so many pools are under repair has to do with a new federal safety law. Its goal is to keep young swimmers from being trapped by underwater drains.

Sean Debley: You have the potential for body entrapment, fingers and toes getting into openings. So you want to really make sure the fittings are installed to minimize the potential for entrapment.

The law is called the Virginia Graeme Baker Act. It’s named after former Secretary of State James Baker’s late granddaughter. She’s one of nine people who’ve died over the last decade from the forceful suction of pool or hot tub drains. The law went into effect last December. And now every public pool in the nation has to comply. Health inspector Sean Debley says there’s no easy fix.

DEBLEY:Each pool is uniquely different in how the plumbing’s configured, how the recirculation system is set up. That’s been one of the challenges in trying to come into compliance is that there’s not a universal cure.

In some cases, it just means new drain covers. For more complicated fixes, automatic shut-off pumps or new drains have to be installed. That can cost tens of thousands of dollars for a single pool. Tom Lachocki is the chief executive of the National Swimming Pool Foundation. He estimates the cost of retrofitting all the public pools in the country could reach $1.5 billion dollars.

TOM LACHOCKI: For manufacturers, distributors, services companies, that’s quite a stimulus package. However, for the local pool, they’re the ones who are bearing the cost, and as a result more pools are closing.

Among them: ten pools in Georgia’s parks. The state says it can’t afford the $150,000 dollars to make the necessary upgrades and so they’ll keep them shut for the summer. Lachoki says there’s no way to know for sure just how many pools across the country have shut down or closed for repairs because there’s no central clearinghouse keeping track. Many pool operators weren’t even aware of the law until they got notices about it from their insurance companies.

Scott Wolfson is with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which oversees the Baker Act. He says there have been delays in implementation.

Scott Wolfson: We know there are pool operators out there who are still waiting for covers to be delivered to them, for labor to be available to install them, that there are some state officials that have a backlog of permits to clear.

Wolfson says so far, no one has been fined for non-compliance. But it’s believed half of the pools in the country haven’t made the retrofits. In Ventura County, health inspector Sean Debley’s signed off on the upgrades made on this pool — and so it will be open, just in time for summer.

I’m Lisa Napoli for Marketplace.

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