CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Anna Douglas | The Charlotte Observer) - More than 350 public pools in Mecklenburg County can welcome swimmers Memorial Day weekend despite not having had a health inspection this year.
That includes six pools that, as of Friday, hadn't been rechecked since county inspectors shut them down last summer due to major safety problems, according to a Charlotte Observer analysis.
North Carolina law allows the county to issue swimming pool permits for the season without an inspection. The law requires an inspection within two months.
But the state's other largest counties – Forsyth, Guilford and Wake – all require a pool inspection before a permit is issued. A Forsyth County pool inspector says his department changed its policy 10 years ago because later-in-the-season inspections uncovered critical health and safety violations at public pools that the health department could have prevented.
Local health department officials here say they've already performed more than 600 pool inspections this year but simply don't have the staff to check all facilities before the swim season starts.
Mecklenburg Environmental Health Division Manager Bill Hardister said it's going to be deemed "best practice" moving forward to recheck suspended pools. Hardister said Friday the county is investigating why its tracking system didn't flag suspended pools the Observer found.
The Observer made the county aware of the tracking issue Tuesday. Three days later, six pools that failed inspection last year and were shut down were still on track to open this weekend and at least one already had swimmers in the water.
"We're investigating that," Hardister said when the Observer interviewed him late Friday afternoon.
Tuesday, the Observer found that Somerstone Apartments, located off Albermarle Road and East W. T. Harris Boulevard in Charlotte, had been given a permit even though it had yet to be inspected after being shut down in 2016 with problems that included an exposed underwater electrical wire in the pool.
After questions from the Observer, health department officials withdrew Somerstone's 2017 permit. Tim Dutcher, Mecklenburg's pools and environmental health services supervisor, said the permit had been issued in error. He said the department should do a better job of tracking suspended permits from the year prior to make sure renewals aren't granted without a re-inspection.
Somerstone's new management – Dasmen Residential, based out of New York – say they are taking care of the pool problems they inherited and Somerstone won't be re-opening the pool until major repairs are done and an inspection is complete.
County officials defended the other permits, saying there's no requirement that a pool that ended last year on a suspended permit must be rechecked before swimmers are allowed in.
Inspectors are supposed to check various indicators of pool safety, including water quality, pool maintenance equipment, restrooms and locker rooms, pool suction hazards and life-saving devices on site. Pools with health or safety violations are given demerits, which are weighted by the severity of the problem. Demerits and the type of violation dictates whether a pool can stay open.
Pool inspections performed in Mecklenburg County for the last several years can be found online by visiting the Charlotte-Mecklenburg environmental health website at CharMeck.org.
Seeking an inspection
One pool in uptown Charlotte was open Friday with a valid permit, even though inspectors hadn't been back to see whether last season's problems were solved. The pool, at First Ward Place apartments, was forced to close last July when the county health department found 17 health and safety violations.
That inspection and closure of the pool came after it was open nearly three weeks last season. Then, inspectors said there was no chlorine in the water, algae and mildew were growing on pool walls and the operator had not been keeping up with daily logs that show routine chemical and main drain checks.
The apartment complex manager did not return a phone call from the Observer on Friday. By late Friday, after the Observer asked why the pool was open, county inspectors visited and found some equipment problems and the same issue with daily logs and routine drain checks that the pool had last year.
The swimming pool and the spa at the Clarion Inn Lake Norman hotel also had been cleared to open, but the owner says he's waiting for an inspection because last year's problems were so serious. The Clarion Inn's pool was shut down last summer because the operator hadn't used chlorine and failed to keep daily chemical record logs, and the pool had broken equipment.
The water was so cloudy, an inspector wrote, they couldn't see the pool's drains.
Hotel manager Nilay Patel told the Observer he has overseen major cleanup and repair projects at the pool and spa since he started on the job in January. Even though Clarion has a 2017 permit from the county, Patel won't open this weekend. He says he's been calling the county for a week, asking for an inspection.
Hardister said the department tries to schedule these types of inspections no more than one week after a business or pool operator calls.
Patel says he wants to open a safe pool and the inspection is necessary.
"I just want something that tells me 'yay' or 'nay'," he said.
Analyzing pool software
The Observer's review found that in 2016, at least 21 swimming pools, spas and wading pools opened without inspection and were eventually shut down or put on notice for major violations. These facilities were permitted to operate for an average of 34 days, the Observer found, before being closed by the county or put on notice for violations. A county permit allows a pool to operate but the county doesn't track the date it actually opens.
A third-party swimming pool operator in charge of one of those pools told the Observer he can't explain why the county issued a new permit at Heathrow on Harris, an apartment complex with a seasonal pool that was shut down last year for water quality issues.
Jeff Frey, a pool operator with Aqua Tech, said the Heathrow pool won't be reopened until potential health and safety problems are solved. In the county's tracking system of inspections and permits, though, the pool is already cleared to operate.
After the Observer started asking questions about 2017 permits given to failing pools, Mecklenburg County spokesperson Rebecca Carter explained that officials traced an issue back to how a third-party vendor's system was keeping up with swimming pool violations. The issue stemmed from the "status" assigned to each facility at the end of the year.
"It is routine for the status to change from E (permit suspended) or W (intent to suspend issued) to a B (facility closed for seasonal reasons) at the end of the season. We are already working with our vendor to change this process so we have better pre-permit status information in the future," she said.
Dutcher said the public must rely on private, certified pool operators to keep facilities clean and safe because the county can't inspect all pools before they open.
"Each facility is operated and maintained by a trained (North Carolina) or Nationally Certified Pool Operator. While an extra set of eyes is always better, CPO's are trained on the daily operation and maintenance of public swimming pools," Dutcher said.
But in Forsyth County, inspector Ken Bowyer says his department began 10 years ago to inspect pools before they opened because pools had too many safety problems that couldn't go unchecked.
"We would be issuing immediate suspensions (later in the season) and I would find two, three, sometimes four critical violations ... After a handful of those, we decided if we're going to be serious, we have to make sure there's compliance met on the front end," said Bowyer, manager of the Forsyth County pool permitting and inspections program.
That's often easier in a county much smaller than Mecklenburg County, he said.
Mecklenburg County health inspectors are responsible for nearly 1,400 swimming pools. Most are open seasonally, between May and September. There are 44 county employees assigned to inspect more than 900 seasonal pools.