Politics & Government

Bill would broaden carbon monoxide rules

Responding to last year’s deaths at a Boone hotel, North Carolina lawmakers are proposing to broaden and clarify laws on carbon monoxide alerts in hotels and other lodgings.

The provision, part of a giant regulatory bill approved Wednesday by a Senate committee, would require alarms – not just detectors – near heaters, appliances and fireplaces that burn combustion fuels.

“The bottom line will be that we add carbon monoxide alarms where we need to protect the public and prevent future deaths,” said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican.

Samuelson co-chairs the Environmental Review Commission, which made the proposal with input from fire marshals, building inspectors and state insurance officials.

The new requirement would apply to extended-stay tourist homes, bed and breakfast properties, as well as hotels and other lodgings.

The proposal rewrites portions of a law enacted last year after three people died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the Best Western in Boone. It replaces a portion that just required detectors, not alarms.

Lynn Minges, president and chief executive officer for the N.C. Restaurant & Lodging Association, said her group supports the new measure.

Minges said the bill simply clarifies language in the carbon monoxide alarm bill that went into effect last year.

It would end confusion about extended stay motels by making it clear they must install alarms, Minges said.

The only significant change contained in the new proposal would put local fire departments in charge of enforcing the law, she said. Now, local health departments perform that duty, but Minges said many of them don't have expertise with carbon monoxide alarms.

Bill Hardister, director of environmental health for Mecklenburg County, said the new bill amounts to a “technical correction to the law.”

Few hotels in the Charlotte area appeared to be complying with the carbon monoxide detector requirement shortly after it went into effect in October 2013.

The law mandated that hotels and other lodging establishments install the detectors in every enclosed space with a fossil-fuel burning heater, appliance or fireplace and in every room that shares a wall, floor or ceiling with such spaces.

As of early December, the Mecklenburg County Health Department found that 21 of the 31 buildings it inspected had failed to install alarms or had faulty or malfunctioning equipment.

Hardister could not produce current statistics for the 191 hotels and motels his agency inspects. But he said he believes compliance rates are high.

An Observer investigation revealed that employees at the Best Western in Boone replaced an existing swimming pool water heater with a used pool heater from another hotel in 2011. The employees were not licensed to do the work and did not get a permit or an inspection. A gas company later converted the heater from propane to natural gas.

Despite warnings in an owner’s manual, the hotel did not install recommended carbon monoxide detectors near the heater.

The heater spewed out exorbitant levels of carbon monoxide that leaked through holes in a corroded exhaust pipe into Room 225 above. Daryl and Shirley Jenkins of Washington state died in the room in April. But even after the state medical examiner’s lab pinpointed lethal concentrations of the gas, the results were not made public.

The leak was not discovered until 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams died in the same room in June, and his mother was seriously injured.

“We know we had to do something after that tragedy to protect our citizens and our guests who come into the state,” said Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican who co-chaired the environmental review panel.

“Sadly we had to have a tragedy to make sure we had everything in place.”

Staff writers Elizabeth Leland and Fred Clasen-Kelly contributed.