State faults schools on boiler safety Widespread violations in Baltimore are found by Md. inspectors

Girl's scalding prompted review

10 units 'red-tagged' to prevent their use

99 others defective

September 15, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin, Marcia Myers and Jean Thompson | Kate Shatzkin, Marcia Myers and Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

After a 7-year-old Baltimore girl innocently flushed a public school toilet, causing it to spew scalding water that scarred her for life, state inspectors set out to answer this question: Could something like it happen again?

Three months later, they say students and staff in the city schools could be at risk for another tragedy. Yet conditions are so dilapidated and disordered around the machinery that pumps hot water and heat to thousands of students that inspectors can't determine just how great that risk is.

What the regulators do say, in documents and interviews, is this:

In a random audit of heating and hot water systems at 42 other schools, state inspectors found painted-over controls, unsafe repairs, safety valves they couldn't reach to inspect, corrosion and leakage.

In at least some cases, their inspections were dramatically at odds with those done by the city's hired insurance inspectors. Not one of 109 pieces of equipment examined by the state passed inspection. In 10 cases, regulators have "red-tagged" school boilers to keep anyone from trying to start them.

The hot water supply boiler that overheated at Hazelwood Elementary-Middle School June 18 -- spewing the superheated water and steam onto first-grader Ashley Moore -- had no operating certificate, and there was no record of it ever having been inspected by anyone, in violation of state law.

After the accident, the suspect water heater -- the size of a 14-year-old halfback -- mysteriously disappeared. State inspectors had repeatedly ordered the school to preserve the evidence and are now considering criminal charges.

After state inspectors found widespread violations, they called for a full-scale audit of the remaining schools. Their boss, John P. O'Connor, the state's commissioner of labor and industry, pulled his inspectors out -- giving the job back to Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Co., the same private firm whose work had been called into question.

O'Connor said in an interview last week that his staff of eight inspectors has to direct its attention statewide, not just to the Baltimore City schools.

"We just thought the quickest way is to let Hartford have a chance," he said. "If Hartford does not come through, and come through with adequate inspections on this, we're going to know it," he said, pointing out that his chief boiler inspector would be monitoring the company's reinspections of boilers and reviewing weekly summaries of their reports.

Oct. 1 deadline

Regulators have told the company that the new inspections must be completed by Oct. 1 if the boilers are to be operable when cold weather arrives. Until that time, they say, children do not appear to be in imminent risk of harm at the schools they have inspected.

"We need to get the issues resolved before the heating season begins, or if not, we have the potential for a serious incident," said Ileana C. O'Brien, deputy commissioner for labor and industry. But she said that she felt that was enough time to have Hartford perform inspections and state inspectors check the work. Of the current violations, she said: "Some aren't critical; some could be."

Said O'Connor: "This is a tragic accident that happened to a young lady, and I want people to assess it in a calm way."

School officials in charge of maintenance, interviewed last week, said they had seen only a few of the state's inspection reports and were unaware of possible problems systemwide, though state officials said they had sent letters and reports to document their findings on every piece of equipment.

The school officials also said they had not seen a letter sent to the state last month from a Baltimore City risk management official, who wrote that the recent survey of schools raised "serious questions" that could have a great impact on the school district.

"If there are some safety issues that must be addressed, of course we will," said Senior Executive Manager Anthony A. Fears, who is Superintendent Walter G. Amprey's top maintenance official. "When it comes to the safety of the kids, we spend the dollars and worry about how we balance the budget later."

He added: "None of the systems, we understand, are systems that are operating in an unsafe situation."

Amprey did not respond to several calls Friday.

James A. Morkosky, the state's administrator for safety inspections, said the pattern of violations in the schools could be considered unusual, given that more than 90 percent of boiler inspections statewide typically find no violations. Some of the state inspectors' reports recorded violations that an independent consultant contacted by The Sun described as serious.

Hartford officials declined to be interviewed. "We are aware of the situation and that it is being investigated by the state," said Grace Martin, director of corporate public relations for the company in Hartford, Conn. "It's not appropriate for us to comment during a pending investigation. That's as far as we're going to go now."

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