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Shocking Development Keeps Pool Off-Limits

TIMES STAFF WRITER

City bureaucrats agree that the Cleveland High School pool had to be closed because it shocked swimmers. But how it came to be built with a defective electrical grounding system is still a matter of debate.

The latest problem for the $3-million Reseda indoor pool began in December, when swimmers reported feeling mild electrical shocks.

The Department of Recreation and Parks closed the pool and hired consultants, who determined that the city-funded pool’s electrical grounding system failed when a transformer outside the building blew as a result of a power surge, according to a report by the department’s general manager.

The fact that no serious injuries occurred was simple good fortune, say some familiar with the project.

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“If people would have been holding any railing [during the power surge], they could have been electrocuted,” said Bob England, chief electrical inspector for the city’s Department of Building and Safety.

Who’s to blame for the faulty electrical grounding system depends on whom you approach in the city’s bureaucracy.

The possibilities range from suggestions of poor contractor work, to a design flaw, to an inspection process that did not require the pool to be checked during construction for life-threatening hazards.

“Other than the resident inspector retained by the Department of Recreation and Parks for quality control, there were no other inspectors on the project in an official or unofficial capacity, to our knowledge,” said Ron Fitzpatrick, Recreation and Parks head architect.

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Since the project was built on Los Angeles Unified School District property, it fell under the jurisdiction of the state. But, because it was city-funded, the state did not have an obligation to inspect the pool during construction, Fitzpatrick said.

The city’s Department of Building and Safety does not have jurisdiction on state property, so it did not issue permits and was not obligated to inspect the project, according to Recreation and Parks and Building and Safety officials.

Instead, Recreation and Parks officials said, the pool had a resident inspector from the Bureau of Contract Administration, a city agency that routinely provides state-certified inspectors for such projects.

That inspector is on site to make sure the construction followed the specifications in the plans, Fitzpatrick said.

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The traditional installation of a pool’s electrical grounding system uses bare steel reinforcement bars--or rebar--that are tied together where the bars cross, creating a closed electrical circuit.

The huge grid works to control the safe flow of electricity in the event of a power surge, such as the one that blew the transformer in Reseda.

For the Cleveland pool, Recreation and Parks approved a grounding system that included both bare steel and vinyl-coated rebar in hopes that the coated steel would minimize rust corrosion and stains in the walls of the pool.

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But the coated steel, according to the consultant’s report, prevented proper bonding, leaving an open circuit that allowed electricity to escape into the water.

While the pool was under construction, according to some sources, Recreation and Parks officials did have at least one opportunity to correct the flaw when they were warned that the electrical grounding system design called for the use of vinyl-coated rebar.

England says he advised the inspector on site that vinyl-coated rebar would not meet the national electrical code requirements that all metallic parts of a pool be bonded.

“They got my opinion and said, ‘Thank you very much, have a nice day,’ ” England said.

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But Recreation and Parks officials say that if England offered advice, it would not be found on record, since his agency had no jurisdiction and any contact would have been an unofficial matter of courtesy.

City officials say they simply erred when they approved the use of the vinyl-covered steel.

“We weren’t trying to get away with something,” Fitzpatrick said. “It just failed.”

In fact, the plans for the Cleveland pool were the same as those used in the construction of another city pool built in 1987 in Westwood.

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That pool operated for 10 years until similar electrical problems surfaced a few months before the troubles at Cleveland. It, too, has been shut down.

Cleveland’s closure is the latest chapter in a troubled history. The project was riddled with construction delays, bickering between Recreation and Parks and the contractor, and was shut down before it officially opened because of Northridge earthquake damage.

“It’s been more out of commission than in commission,” said Councilwoman Laura Chick, expressing frustration over the persistent troubles of the project.

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Talk of the modern, year-round facility began in 1986.

The plans called for a building in the southwest corner of Cleveland High School housing an Olympic-size pool and a smaller, handicapped-accessible pool equipped with a hydraulic chairlift.

The facilities would serve the students of Cleveland and adjacent Joaquin Miller High School--a campus for developmentally and physically disabled youth--as well as the general public.

The project, begun in 1991, immediately ran into trouble, according to a spokesman for Mega Construction, the project’s main contractor.

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A higher-than-expected water table created a swamp as crews began digging out the pool. The excess water was pumped out around the clock into the nearby neighborhood.

Among contractors’ other complaints were that excessive changes in the plans were made once construction began. And the on-site inspector was seldom present, according to the electrical subcontractor.

The main contractor complained to Recreation and Parks at least three times in writing, according to documents.

"[The inspector] was on site a total of 3 1/2 hours all of last week,” reads a letter dated Nov. 22, 1993. “I am only asking for [the inspector] to be on site enough to complete the final inspection.”

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According to Recreation and Parks, there always are some changes in the plans. Fitzpatrick said the inspector was at the site full time throughout the project until the last few weeks, when other assignments took him away.

“You’re always going to have two points of view,” Fitzpatrick said.

City officials have expressed some dissatisfaction with the contractors’ work, but gave no specifics.

Chick said the Cleveland project was one example she considered in formulating a proposal--still in committee--that would reform the city’s bidding process.

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The proposal would require, among other things, report cards for contractors and eliminate the requirement that the city automatically award contracts to low bidders.

The pool was scheduled to open Jan. 18, 1994--three years after the project began--but the 6.7-magnitude Northridge quake the day before caused extensive damage.

It was another year before the pool was repaired and officially opened.

Since then, the facility has had other, smaller technical failures that caused shorter temporary closures but continued to operate until December, when swimmers reported feeling electrical shocks, said Linda Normandy, the lifeguard assigned to the pool.

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“We heard a giant snap, crackle, pop,” she said of the transformer explosion. “People in the pool were getting little shocks.”

The high school swim teams, with the help of Chick, evacuated once again--this time to the West Valley Jewish Community Center, which agreed to let the students use the pool, said Coach Jim Cromwell.

Repairs to the Cleveland and Westwood facilities--which essentially entail building new pools--will cost $1 million, according to Recreation and Parks officials.

In its last regular meeting, the Recreation and Parks Commission approved a process that would bring work crews to Cleveland by late July, with reopening expected by January.

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Steven Soboroff, president of the commission, said the city would try to defer some of the costs if it is determined that the contractor, power company or others had liability in the failure of the grounding system.

“I’m just looking for someone else to pay for the bill rather than us,” he said.


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