For many people, summertime is synonymous with backyard barbeques, ice cream and long, hot days spent at the local pool.
But if you were one of thousands of residents who use the Malvern Hills Pool in West Asheville each year, you may have recently been greeted by a handwritten, cardboard sign taped to the entrance: “Pool Closed For Repairs.”
“It was the talk of all the dog walkers — they’re gonna open the pool,” recalls Malvern Hills resident and Xpress contributor Kay West. “But on the very day the pool was to open, that’s when they put up that sign.”
The city eventually disclosed in a June 17 press release that the 100-year-old pool would remain closed for the season after failing to pass a safety inspection, leading to frustration and confusion within the community.
But in a much-welcomed about-face, the city of Asheville announced July 1 that the Malvern Hills Pool would reopen to the public for the summer.
“Pools are one of those places where everybody gathers and are really an essential hub of the community,” Asheville Parks and Recreation program and operations manager Wayne Simmons tells Xpress. “And so not having those amenities, especially during the summer, can really have a negative impact.”
Playing it safe
The fate of the pool was in the hands of an annual safety inspection report, explained Asheville Parks and Recreation Director D. Tyrell McGirt during an hourlong community meeting on June 22. He said that every public pool must meet federal safety regulations and that Asheville’s pools are required to pass an annual inspection with Buncombe County Environmental Health.
Federal pool safety regulations were created following the death of a 7-year-old girl, Virginia Graeme Baker, who died after suction from a spa drain trapped her under the water in 2002. Following her death, the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act was implemented in 2008, which required drain manufacturers to pass stringent safety tests. Since then, there have been no reported fatalities involving a child being trapped on a suction outlet cover in a public pool or spa.
Those federal regulations were updated at the end of 2021, which required new manufacturer testing aimed at strengthening safety requirements. While the Malvern Hills pool passed the inspection last year, the new regulations pushed the pool’s drain configuration out of compliance during its inspection on May 24. Because of the pool’s age, its drainage system’s configuration and flow rate were unable to be tested by current standards.
“Our process has not changed. We did the same that we do each year to get our pools prepped and ready for inspection,” McGirt told a group of roughly 30 community members at the meeting. “And because we passed last year and had no construction changes — no structural changes to the pool — we were under the impression that we will still be good for this year.”
The failed inspection left the city scrambling to replace its drainage system, but supply chain delays were expected to put a hold on new drain parts until after the summer season was over, McGirt explained.
Despite not meeting the new regulatory standards, the pool, which was built in 1921 and has seen an average of 10,000 visitors a year since 2016, has never experienced a drain-related fatality. A.B. Davis, who lives in the neighborhood, found the contradiction frustrating on the day of the meeting. He said that his three kids, ages 10-12, usually spend their summer days at the pool.
“It bothers me that there’s some bureaucratic box that has to be checked off, even though the performance of the pool is good,” Davis said. “You got to look at whether it’s working. And if it’s not broken, then what are you going to fix?”
Surrender to the flow rate
Amid pushback from local residents, Asheville’s Parks and Recreation manager Simmons says that the city worked for weeks with the manufacturer of the pool drain, AquaStar Pool Products, and Swim Management Group, a private aquatics company that oversees the day-to-day operations of the city’s pools, to find a solution.
“We had exhausted a lot of avenues but we were still working very diligently to find a solution so that we could both get it open safely, most importantly, but also as quickly as possible,” Simmons says.
He explains that after Buncombe County Environmental Health obtained additional information regarding the dimensions and construction details of the drain, as well as consulted with the manufacturer’s compliance manager and regional pool representatives, the entity was able to verify that the pool’s flow rating (the speed at which water is cycled through the pool’s filtration system) was safe. The facility was approved to operate with its current drain configuration through 2024.
“They were able to get to a point where the manufacturer was comfortable with the engineering calculations that had been previously done, and so we were able to get to something that allowed us to kind of move forward this season,” Simmons explains. “We’re just really, really happy that we’re able to kind of get this back up and running for the community.”