Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

September 10, 2012

NSU pool to close

TAHLEQUAH — As swimmers began arriving at the NSU Fitness Center Friday afternoon, Aug. 31, employees at the reception desk gave them the news: Effective Monday, Sept. 17, the pool would be closed for renovations.

Many patrons, stunned by the sudden turn of events, demanded an explanation, but employees initially had few details, and no date for reopening. They had just learned about the closure that morning, as had Fitness Center Director Ron Cox and his assistant, John Hinton.

What they did know was that a complaint to the Oklahoma State Department of Health had prompted university officials to expedite a project already on the drawing board. This spring, an engineering firm recommended renovations after an NSU employee told administrators that corrosion of metal components may have caused serious structural deficiencies to the concrete deck surrounding the pool. The undertaking, NSU officials say, will take from three to eight weeks.

Many regular swimmers knew about the planned repairs. Earlier this summer, a custodian told them he’d been in a meeting during which the deck problems were discussed. He understood the pool could be closed within a few weeks, and the project could require up to a year and a half to complete. A few days later, patrons reported seeing NSU employees and potential contractors checking out the facility.

Tim Foutch, NSU vice president for operations, confirmed the deck renovation project was in the works, but he wanted to delay it until Christmas break so swimmers wouldn’t be inconvenienced more than necessary. He also explained a major overhaul of the Fitness Center would be forthcoming in 2013, and it would mean shuttering the entire Fitness Center for a longer period of time.

Pool patron contacts state          health department

That was the plan, at least, until a pool patron told the state health department the water was making him sick. The state public health specialist, Mike McClure, didn’t find any such problems, but he did remind NSU officials of a potential safety issue he said had been flagged before: the poor quality of the carpet on the pool deck and in the locker rooms. NSU’s Facilities Management department had been scheduled to take out the carpet, but the grievance – and the ongoing campaign by the man who filed it to urge NSU to overhaul the pool and offer an expanded aquatics program – prompted officials to step up the deck renovation.

The health department doesn’t release names of “whistleblowers,” but Fitness Center member Andy Jorgensen has told a number of other swimmers he planned to make the complaint. Jorgensen, who has also written letters to NSU officials and the Daily Press about the pool, at one time oversaw an aquatics program at a YMCA in Oklahoma City. He has frequently provided documents to NSU and the Press about swimming programs, pool maintenance, and aquatics regulations and parameters.

Jorgensen’s most recent complaint focused on “chloramine,” which he believed was present in the NSU pool at a level sufficient to cause illness. Chloramine can  exacerbate respiratory problems, and in high levels can pose a health risk.

McClure found no evidence of high levels of chloramine, nor any other issue that created a health risk, other than the carpet. A copy of his report, obtained by the Daily Press, does point out other problems – some of which, he said, “have been cited numerous times.”

K.C. Ely, chief of consumer health services for the state health department, confirmed the report showed no water quality problems.

“We found some chipped concrete on the decking. It was nothing that would make anyone sick, or make us close the pool,” Ely said.

McClure also noted a set of portable stairs installed for handicap access, which he believed could cause entrapment; those have since been removed. Other observations included eroded pool finish, no displayed certification for lifeguards, and the lifeguards’ position on the pool deck. Cox has now told lifeguards they must use their elevated stand, and swimmers must leave the pool intermittently to allow the lifeguard on duty a brief break.

The late August inspection marked McClure’s first inspection of the NSU pool, according to Josh Daily, public health specialist for Cherokee County. Daily, who has been on the job since 2009, inspects the NSU pool quarterly.

“It was minor stuff, like repairing the concrete. The [pool deck] is in no danger of collapsing,” he said. “I’ve never noticed a water quality issue during my inspections.”

Daily provided the Press with all his inspection reports logged since 2009. Some showed deficiencies, and others cited problems that, according to the reports, were corrected by NSU Facilities Management.

“I always felt [NSU has] done a good job working with me,” Daily said. “If I pointed out something, it was generally fixed, unless it was part of a large-scale remodel, which I’ve been told they’ve planned.”

Undercarriage the focus                  

But Daily doesn’t typically inspect the deck’s undercarriage, which is the focus of concern for NSU officials.

The 31,000-square-foot Fitness Center was opened in 1981, and no major renovations have been undertaken during the ensuing 31 years. Foutch said a $300,000 project in 2010 made aesthetic improvements to the pool and locker rooms, with new paint to walls and lockers, and some carpet replacement. But the facility’s original design had a number of flaws, including ventilation inadequate for today’s standards. This likely has contributed to the corrosion of the pool deck’s metal framework.

NSU officials knew about the carpeting issue before McClure showed up, and Foutch said Facilities Management had been scheduled to remove it several months ago. But when officials learned about the corrosion, they decided to replace the entire deck.

Foutch said he was initially told about the deck’s structural condition by Jon Asbill, who was named interim director of capital projects and planning earlier this year.

“We were talking about taking up the carpet, and Jon said, ‘You’ve got problems beyond what you think you have,’ so we called Wallace Engineering to analyze it for us,” Foutch said.

The report from Wallace, dated May 4, points out “severe corrosion” on some parts of the metal deck floor structure and concrete slab reinforcement. Other elements are listed as moderately corroded, while some are in good condition.

“As the engineer looked at the subdeck structure, he found some weaknesses brought about by corrosion and rust,” Foutch said. “It’s not life-threatening, but if we just took up the carpet, it wouldn’t solve the long-term problem.”

In July, Foutch got approval from the Board of Regents for the deck remodel, though he didn’t intend to start it immediately. But that was before the water quality complaint. And though the water’s fine, Foutch is troubled by McClure’s statement that some issues have been cited more than once.

“Since 2008, they’ve identified a couple of these problems, and they haven’t been addressed. That’s another reason we just decided to go ahead and do the renovation right now,” he said.

Though the reports were passed on by Fitness Center personnel, they apparently got lost in the shuffle in NSU’s Auxiliary department, which oversees the center’s operation. Foutch said the newly appointed Auxiliary director, Todd Enlow, is on board with the project. The contractors have been hired and are ready to begin the work immediately.

Foutch hopes the pool can be reopened for a few months before the $5 million renovation of the entire Fitness Center begins, probably right after Christmas break. But if contractors find more problems, the pool could remain closed for at least a year longer.

Input will be sought

“We still have to get our programming in place,” Foutch said. “We’ll be getting input from staff members and the community about how we can best serve everyone. We’ll have to develop a concept and budget, and turn it into a design, put a bid out on the street, and from there, it’ll take nine months to a year to complete.”

It’s an ambitious blueprint. NSU’s Health and Physical Education Department, student health center and student counseling services will be moved to the revamped facility. Foutch and his team are discussing several new features, like a therapeutic pool separate from the current pool, which is better suited for lap swimming and competition training.

“I understand how important this pool is, and we’re going to do our best to get it reopened as soon as we can,” he said.

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