Boiler probe widens in city schools State inspectors find far more violations than private company

February 14, 1997|By Marcia Myers and Jean Thompson | Marcia Myers and Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

An inquiry into boiler safety violations in Baltimore schools widened yesterday, with state regulators saying they will question school officials as well as inspectors and executives of the company responsible for inspecting the equipment.

The regulators were responding to a new report that sharply contrasts the conditions described by Hartford (Conn.) Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Co. employees with those documented by state inspectors.

According to the report, Hartford Steam inspectors found 28 violations in 195 inspections, none serious enough to merit a "red tag" -- which prevents the school system from using the equipment until repairs are made.

But the state's 197 inspections noted code violations on every unit, and resulted in 128 red tags. The state refused to issue operating certificates to any of the boilers it checked, but Hartford Steam approved 152.

The state inspectors produced the report, comparing the company's work with state inspections, and presented the numbers to members of the state's board of boiler rules, which oversees boiler regulations and safety in Maryland.

The regulators' review of Hartford Steam's work began after a faulty water heater caused severe burns to a first-grader at Hazelwood Elementary-Middle School last June.

Board members meeting yesterday said they intend to find out )) how school boiler systems could have gotten so bad.

"Who is responsible for allowing these conditions to continue?" asked board member Kenneth Donithan. "We have some major concerns."

Much of the equipment has subsequently been repaired.

"All I want is a clean bill of health for the boilers," said Wilbur C. Giles, director of facilities for the city school system, who was not at the board meeting.

Giles declined to comment on Hartford Steam's inspections. The company was hired two years ago by the city's Finance Department to insure and inspect boilers in municipal buildings.

All city schools now have at least one boiler system operating with temporary or complete approval from state inspectors, Giles added.

Funding needed

"I owe the state school construction office a list of the boilers that need to be replaced, and we are going to work jointly on setting priorities and finding the funding to make the replacements possible," he said.

In addition, since the June accident, school system engineers who maintain the boilers have received training from state inspectors to improve maintenance and monitoring, he said.

Ron Howard, director of legislative affairs for Hartford Steam, attended the meeting but declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate.

The attorney for Ashley Moore, the 7-year-old injured at Hazelwood, applauded the board for widening its inquiry, but criticized its timing.

"It would seem to me that in eight months they may have already interviewed some of the inspectors," said Baltimore lawyer Robert Feinberg. "I think people who have kids in school in this city want to see them move on this."

Donithan, who heads a committee investigating the boiler problems, responded: "We've taken every effort to expedite this to the best of our ability."

With the boiler board's recommendation, John P. O'Connor, the state commissioner of labor and industry, can issue fines and suspend or revoke the credentials that authorize inspectors to work in Maryland.

Board members yesterday said they were unclear what, if any, actions they might take if the blame falls on the company or the school system.

O'Connor said contributing problems in the schools were many.

Cooperation needed

"I don't know who the bad guy is in this, but basically we've found that where there's cooperation between maintenance and the insurance company and the state, we don't find a problem," he said. In the Baltimore schools, he said, "there wasn't that cooperation."

In some cases, the schools awarded maintenance contracts to people who were not qualified, O'Connor said.

Ashley Moore was burned with scalding water and steam that spewed from a toilet at Hazelwood on June 18. Safety features on a water heating system failed, sending hot water into the school's cold water lines.

That water heater had never been inspected, as is required by law, and some of its safety features were defective, according to state boiler inspectors who examined it.

A subsequent inspection of boilers at all city schools, requested by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and conducted jointly by the state and Hartford Steam, found code violations and other problems requiring an estimated $2 million in repairs and some replacements.

The Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation's eight boiler inspectors are responsible for inspecting about 15,400 of the 51,000 boilers in Maryland. The rest are inspected by state-commissioned insurance company inspectors to ascertain that the boilers they insure are adequate.

Pub Date: 2/14/97

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