State inspectors in hot water

Boiler defects: How did a new Carroll school open with problem after much publicity about it?

January 20, 1999

THE DISCOVERY OF safety defects in a hot-water system at Carroll County's Linton Springs Elementary -- five months after the school opened -- raises serious questions about the quality of state inspections. A routine, scheduled state inspection at the Eldersburg school this month found the wrong pressure-relief valve installed and the lack of back-flow devices that prevent scalding water from entering cold-water pipes. A state inspection last August, required to open the 750-pupil school, failed to detect the violations.

The equipment is required under a 1993 code. Yet the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation explained: "Our inspectors were not fully up to speed until recently." Only in the past six months have re-inspections of these devices been stepped up, which is how the violations were found at Linton Springs.

The deficiencies were not minor. An explosion could result from improper pressure-relief valves. Children and staff could be scalded by hot water backing up into toilets and faucets. That's what happened in 1996 to a child at a Baltimore City elementary. The faulty system spewed hot water and steam on the unsuspecting pupil when she flushed a toilet. Her severe injury caused a public outcry.

Aside from inadequate training of state inspectors, reasons for the Linton Springs oversight are unclear. Carroll County and school engineers made inspections, but state officials had final authority to approve the facility's use.

The state agency pledges prompt, better inspections of post-1993 schools. Five other Carroll schools will be checked by engineers, and design of a planned school will be altered.

The regret is that broad knowledge of at least one child's scarring wasn't enough to convince inspectors of the need to prevent a tragic recurrence -- five years after state code required it.

Pub Date: 1/20/99

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