RON MATUS and MATTHEW WAITE
Summertime, and the swimming's easy, but keeping up a pool isn't. Countywide, more than 50 pools flunked five or more inspections.
SOUTH TAMPA - Few people think twice about public swimming pools. With temperatures soaring into the 90s, their one thought is sweet relief.
But a closer look shows some pools aren't as safe as others.
A St. Petersburg Times review of inspection records for more than 1,300 public pools in Hillsborough County found dozens have been cited repeatedly for water quality problems and/or missing or faulty equipment.
Countywide, more than 50 pools at apartment complexes, condominiums, community centers and hotels flunked five or more inspections in the past six years. Among them: a Brandon pool fouled by duck droppings and a North Tampa pool that offered a primer on algae types.
In South Tampa, the Hillsborough County Health Department threatened to impose fines or revoke licenses on four of the five worst violators.
Yet, some owners and managers insist there's no problem, and some residents seem to believe that what they don't see won't hurt them.
"It's a great pool. It's a wonderful pool," said John Abel, owner of the Bayshore Oaks apartment complex on Bayshore Boulevard in Ballast Point. The pool has failed multiple inspections and ranks among South Tampa's worst.
Looking at it you'd never know.
Water sparkles blue behind a trim white fence, in a courtyard graced by towering oaks and a splash of hibiscus. Potted palms sprout next to tanning chairs.
"I haven't gotten any diseases," said resident Shirley Gardyszewski, 69, who swims once a week to ease an aching back. "It looks fine as far as I can see."
Records, however, show health inspectors have flunked the pool eight times during routine inspections and ordered it closed at least twice since June 1999. Among other problems, they cited cloudy water and a lack of chlorine, which could allow disease-causing organisms to fester.
Problem pools put users at greater risk of accidents and drowning.
Every year, more than 100,000 people in the United States are injured in or near swimming pools, according to estimates from the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission. In 1999, 530 people drowned in pools, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pools sicken people, too.
More than 15,000 swimmers have fallen ill from confirmed pool outbreaks in the past decade, the CDC reports. As many as 1.5-million may have suffered without knowing what hit them. Many endured hellish rashes or vicious bouts of diarrhea. A handful died.
In Tampa two years ago, 87 people, including a contingent of high school cheerleaders, found themselves with bumpy, red rashes on their arms and legs after simultaneous outbreaks at two hotels: the Best Western near Busch Gardens and the Courtyard by Marriott on Palm River Road. Inspectors found low chlorine and overloaded filtration systems. Bacteria ruled.
"What it says to us is that we need to improve the operations of our pools," said Michael Beach, an Atlanta-based expert in recreational water illnesses at the CDC.
The Hillsborough County Health Department inspects pools and spas used collectively by tens of thousands of people. At least twice a year, inspectors visit every pool at apartment complexes, condominiums, community centers, hotels and motels, mobile home parks, schools and gyms. They do not inspect backyard pools.
Inspectors flunk pools when they find serious problems. They close pools when they identify imminent health threats.
The Times review included more than 15,000 records spanning six years.
During that time, the average pool flunked 1.1 inspections. The top violators each failed nine. Nearly half of all the pools tested - 645 - never flunked.
Records also show the average pool closed 1.5 times. One, in Plant City, closed 13 times.
Health officials shut down some pools repeatedly, but inspection reports do not differentiate between pools that are ordered closed and those that are shut down voluntarily because of problems or repairs.
One of two pools at Palm Grove apartments, just off E Busch Boulevard near Temple Terrace, is among those with nine failed inspections.
Residents know it has issues.
Around the pool last week, a playful shout rang out: "Rally up!" A half-dozen teenagers yelled the same words, then ran, dove and flipped into the water.
"It's fun, but they've got to clean it out," said Devonique Riley, 14.
She and the other teens were as aware as any inspector about the pool's shortcomings. No life ring. A broken life hook. Cloudy water. And cracked areas on the pool bottom, big as potholes.
"You have to watch your step," said Roy Gordon, 17. "You can get cut."
Apartment manager Leigh Dingle didn't sidestep the issue.
"It's a fact. We struggle," she said. "Come summertime everyone in the business just says, "Oh God.' "
More than 100 children live at Palm Grove, where rents range from $520 for a one-bedroom apartment to $810 for a three-bedroom, Dingle said. Scores of other kids come from neighborhood complexes that don't have pools.
The result: wicked wear and tear.
"We replace things weekly," Dingle said. "It's like our life ring. I can show you a bill where we replaced 50."
Records show the most common pool violation is an out-of-whack flow meter, which is crucial to keeping filters working properly and chlorine circulating.
Too little chlorine can be a problem. So can too much.
In 1995, four teenage athletes from Clearwater became sick after swimming in an over-chlorinated pool. The symptoms, which lingered more than a month, included breathing difficulties and a high pulse rate.
Pool users don't have to wait for inspectors to spot such problems.
They can file complaints on their own, as did one resident fed up with duck waste in a pool at Lakewood Place apartments in Brandon. (The complex responded by hiring a trapper who nabbed more than 20 ducks.)
Modest complexes like Palm Grove and Lakewood Place aren't the only ones with problems.
Scruffy apartments make the list of chronic violators. So do middle-class condominiums near WestShore Plaza and luxury apartment homes in Tampa Palms.
"A lot of it is management," said Cindy Morris, Hillsborough's director of environmental health.
Countywide, the other top violators are Timber Trace apartments near the University of South Florida, Casa Blanca apartments in South Tampa and Brookside apartments and Place One condominiums, both in Central Tampa.
Timber Trace manager Jackie Szabo said nine flunked inspections did not necessarily mean the pool was bad.
"No significant problem has ever been pointed out to me," Szabo said.
A Brookside official familiar with the pool inspections could not be reached for comment. Managers at Place One did not return calls.
Regionally, South Tampa pools have fared worse than pools in many other parts of the county. South Tampa's top flunker had nine closures, compared with seven for Brandon and five for North Tampa.
Inspectors say it stands to reason. Older areas have older pools that need more attention.
Casa Blanca on W Tyson Avenue and S Dale Mabry Highway leads South Tampa's troubled pool list. Tied for second: Ashford East apartments, on W Cleveland Street west of Dale Mabry; Vineyard condominiums, near WestShore Plaza; and Bayshore Oaks, the complex in Ballast Point. Rounding out the top five is Hyde Park Pointe apartments, on S Armenia Avenue just south of Kennedy Boulevard.
In 2002, after repeated violations, the health department began proceedings to revoke Casa Blanca's pool license. Improvements followed, and Casa Blanca kept its license.
The complex hasn't failed an inspection since May 2002, but problems remain.
On a recent weekday, children at the complex showed a reporter a ladder missing all of its steps and rocks on the pool bottom. Other residents said management was not to blame.
Children from nearby complexes do most of the damage, they said. The kids scale a wall and a privacy fence so they can swim in Casa Blanca's pool.
"They're jealous," said resident DeAnna Pettit, 46, who swims laps every night.
Casa Blanca managers did not return calls for comment.
Managers at Ashford East, a W Cleveland Street complex formerly known as The Crossings, said previous owners were to blame for the eight failed inspections.
Any problems were "prior to our having it," said Nancy Fisher with Wisco Inc., a Tampa company that bought the $2.1-million property in September 2001.
Records, however, show four of the eight flunks happened after the new owners took over.
Officials from the other most flagrant pools in South Tampa could not be reached.
Beach, the CDC expert, said pool operators would clean up their act if people found out the truth. He offered one suggestion for getting better compliance: Post inspection reports where swimmers will see them.
"We want (pool users) to start asking questions: "Why is this? You're not protecting my health.' "
- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or firstname.lastname@example.org