The Consumer Product Safety Commission has begun to enforce the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, signaling what many believe is a change in the agency’s approach to the law.

Implementing VGB for the nation’s 300,000 commercial pools has been a question since the law was took effect in December 2008.

CPSC officials originally said the agency only had the manpower to inspect pools where an accident had occurred or complaints had been filed. As an additional measure, CPSC urged state and local health departments to enforce the law in their areas, but that request met with mixed results.

But recently 100 CPSC staff members, stationed around the nation, have begun inspecting pools. As of press time, the agency said it had checked approximately 900 pools and 300 spas in 700 locations. Approximately 80 percent were found to be compliant.

CPSC will not disclose where the pool inspections took place or which regions will be targeted for future checks. However, reports of inspections have come from locations nationwide.

In addition, CPSC reported that it was working to contract directly with certain state health departments, but officials declined to say which ones.

“I don’t know that there’s any particular goal to inform the public and the states that their states are going to enforce the federal law …,” said CPSC spokeswoman Kathleen Reilly. “It’s been a federal law on the books for almost 10 months.”

Another change in CPSC’s approach has to do with the tone its enforcement is taking.

Late last year, when facility operators were scrambling to bring pools into compliance, CPSC officials stated that they didn’t plan to impose the harshest penalties allowed under the law. These include fines of $100,000 for each violation, up to a maximum of $15 million or up to five years in jail.

“CPSC staff would like to quell rumors that we intend to bring million-dollar fines or prison sentences against individual pool and spa operators,” said Scott Wolfson, the group’s spokesman at that time. 

Recent correspondence sent to facility operators, however, has cited those punishments.

The letters request that the pools be immediately closed until they can be retrofitted. The agency gave pool owners 10 working days to indicate in writing how the vessels would be fixed. “Until this matter is resolved, there will remain a possibility of further action, including reasonably anticipated litigation,” stated a letter to one facility.

CPSC will not disclose how it plans to follow up these notifications. “Enforcement issues are something that we just have to work on internally,” Reilly said.

In addition, the agency said earlier this year it would make the inspection of wading pools and other higher-risk features a priority. Yet the current checks appear random, and may be based on the location of the field inspectors.

“Kiddie and wading pools are still top priority due to the risk to children regarding entrapment, but we are not limiting our inspection to these pools,” Reilly said. “It’s a federal law and it went into effect going on 10 months ago, so our chairman feels very strongly that pools should be in compliance.”

The extra emphasis also may be explained by a bigger budget. CPSC didn’t receive funding to implement the law until March of this year, when $7.28 million was earmarked for VGB issues. The agency also saw its overall budget increase 31 percent to $105 million.

Some welcome the new enforcement campaign. Industry members who perform VGB-related work said it provides them with additional validation. These professionals have seen push-back from clients who question their intentions in trying to bring pools into compliance.

“It makes it look almost like we’re ambulance chasers,” said John Mortensen, owner of Aquatic Concepts in Phoenix. “Without the enforcement, it looks like we’re creating something that doesn’t exist just to drum up money.”

Others have encountered customers who challenge the seriousness of the law.

“People have told me, ‘I’ll comply when they put a gun to my head.’” said Javier Payan, president of Payan Pool Service in El Cajon, Calif. “Well, this is the gun to the head. Now finally we’ve got something that has some teeth into the law.”