RON MATUS, BILL COATS 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.
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 four South Tampa pools threatened with fines or license revocations.
In north Tampa, one of the worst violators recently was buried. Literally.
One of two pools at Emerald Cove apartments, formerly Regents Place, off Bearss Avenue, had flunked five inspections since 1998 and had not passed an inspection since September 2000. On several occasions, inspectors ordered it closed after finding green water and algae.
Management's solution: Close it permanently.
So about a month ago, construction crews replaced the murky water with dirt, sand and sod. Now the spot may be destined for picnic benches, said Pamela L'Hoste, marketing director for the complex's owner, The MBS Companies based in New Orleans.
"If I can't service (residents) with two pools and keep them operating properly, then we'll do it with one," she said.
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 the 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 the 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.
"It's fun, but they've got to clean it out," said Devonique Riley, 14.
She and other teens playing at the pool recently 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. On top of that, scores of 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."
Countywide records show the most common violation is an out-of-whack flow meter, crucial to keeping filters working properly and chlorine circulating.
Chlorine stymies the growth of disease-causing microorganisms. Too little 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 to 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.)
In north Tampa, the pool at Sterling Lake apartments has been written up repeatedly for missing equipment and has flunked five inspections. Children routinely turn safety items into toys, then misplace them, said George Bochis, director of property management for the owner, Sterling Lake of Tampa.
"If that's gone, you flunk," he said.
Inspection reports show pool problems aren't limited to modest complexes like Palm Grove or Sterling Lake.
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.
Officials at Brookside familiar with pool issues could not be reached for comment. Managers at Place One did not return calls.
Regionally, north Tampa pools have fared better than pools in other parts of the county. North Tampa's top flunker had five closures, compared with nine for South Tampa and seven for Brandon. As a rule, older pools in older areas need more attention.
Still, north-area pools have issues.
In February, an inspector closed one of two pools at Cypress Run apartments, off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, after finding black algae blooming on the pool's worn surface.
At times, the water "was like all greenish," said resident Jessica Filsaime, 10.
Management responded with major repairs. Last week, the pool looked clear. Filsaime swam happily.
"I think we're on top of things, which was not always the case," said Cypress Run's new manager, Marianne Kelly.
A pool's inspection record does not necessarily reflect the pool's health today. Water quality can yo-yo up or down within days.
In Tampa Palms, the community pool at Compton Park hasn't flunked since September. But in six years, it has flunked five inspections for algae, a lack of chlorine and other problems.
At the IFPA Tennis & Fitness Academy, near USF, managers say they inherited a problem.
In 2002, they opened the facility - previously the Palmer Tennis Center - after it had been closed for a year.
"Please don't associate us with the sins of the last tenant," said Stan Merrell, the academy's vice president of operations.
But records show the academy pool flunked this past February after inspectors found zero chlorine.
Merrell blamed a broken chemical feeder, which was repaired immediately, he said.
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