Feds promise swimming pool rules are ‘flexible’

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The Justice Department promised Thursday to be “flexible” in enforcing new rules ordering public pools to pay for lifts or ramps for the disabled — backing away from what some pool operators had said was an invitation to a flood of lawsuits against small businesses.

It marked the latest retreat for the department, which earlier this year ruled the Americans With Disabilities Act applied to pools open to the public, such as community recreation centers and hotels, which would have to invest in elevators, lifts or ramps in order to accommodate the disabled.

But with the March compliance deadline looming and members of Congress threatening action, the Justice Department issued an initial delay, and earlier this month extended the stay into next year. On Thursday, the department went further, saying the rules apply chiefly to new pools, while existing pools will only need to comply if it’s easy and cheap to do so.

“Readily achievable means that it is easily accomplishable without much difficulty or expense,” the department said. “This is a flexible, case-by-case analysis, with the goal of ensuring that ADA requirements are not unduly burdensome, including to small businesses.”

The reprieve came just before the Memorial Day weekend, which marks the traditional opening day for many outdoor pools.

Some members of Congress had fought the pool rules as an overreach of federal authority, and they said the new guidance was a retreat by the administration.

“It’s obvious that the Obama administration is quickly backtracking after giving little thought to the real-world impact of this one-size-fits-all mandate,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, who had tried to pass legislation to halt the mandate.

Pool owners had feared the rules would lead to what they called “poolmageddon” — a torrent of lawsuits, and the chance to be fined for every day they were out of compliance.

The administration is facing pressure from Congress, where the House passed a spending bill that blocks the Justice Department from enforcing any of the pool rules.

A number of Democrats criticized the move, but none of them pursued an amendment to delete the language, meaning it remains an active part of the bill.

The Senate also would have to agree to the language, which is less likely.

“For many Americans with disabilities, swimming pools are an important source of physical activity and emotional comfort,” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, during the House debate on the Justice Department spending bill.

He told his colleagues that rolling back the rules “would constitute a serious setback to Americans with disabilities, including many of our veterans — and I want you to think about this — many of our veterans wounded while serving our nation overseas.”

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