Albuquerque building officials violate state regs for critical safety inspections

A two-month KRQE News 13 Investigation

Larry Barker
Larry Barker

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – Albuquerque building inspectors blatantly broke state rules and regulations and when state construction regulators found out what happened, their reaction was one of “shock” and “surprise.”

“I cannot explain it,” said Albuquerque’s Planning Director Suzanne Lubar.

Ground zero for this public safety scandal is the City of Albuquerque’s Building Safety Division. According to the results of a two-month KRQE News 13 investigation, high ranking building officials ignored New Mexico regulations by using unqualified inspectors to perform critically important safety inspections. Even though they knew the rules, they violated them anyway. The city’s violations went unchecked for 16 months.

“It’s a public safety issue. Clear and simple,” said state Regulation and Licensing Superintendent Mike Unthank.

Unthank told KRQE News 13, the use of unqualified inspectors puts the public at risk.

“I think it not only puts the public at risk, it also puts the entity that has performed uncertified work in a very difficult situation from a liability stand point,” Unthank said.

The issue relates to medical gas systems used in healthcare facilities like hospitals, surgery centers, veterinary and dental offices. If a medical gas system fails, or if it is improperly installed, a patient can suffer dire consequences, even death. That’s why state regulations require all medical gas installations be approved only by specially trained and certified inspectors. The certification process includes classroom study and a written proficiency exam. Only certified inspectors can approve medical gas installations. However, that requirement didn’t stop Albuquerque building inspectors from repeatedly violating state rules.

Take for example medical gas inspections performed by Albuquerque’s Chief Plumbing and Mechanical Supervisor, Roger Coble. Even though Coble lacked qualifications, he performed medical gas inspections in January, March and May of 2014 at a dental office on Montano in northwest Albuquerque. In October 2014, Coble made a medical gas inspection at a South Valley dental clinic. In March 2015, Coble inspected a medical gas installation at Presbyterian Hospital. And, in November 2014 the uncertified Coble inspected a medical gas project at Presbyterian’s southeast Albuquerque day surgery facility.

KRQE News 13’s investigation found over the 16-month period, Roger Coble failed to get his medical gas certification and was not qualified to perform any medical gas inspections during that period. From January 2014 to April 2015, Albuquerque’s Chief Plumbing Supervisor performed at least 12 medical gas inspections for which he was not qualified.

Albuquerque Planning Director Lubar told KRQE News 13 she expects Roger Coble to be familiar with medical gas rules and regulations. However, when asked why Coble would ignore the rules Lubar said, “I do not believe that he intentionally or willfully violated state law.”

Roger Coble wasn’t the only unqualified inspector performing medical gas inspections. Last year, building inspector Vidal Espinosa approved medical gas installations at an Albuquerque veterinary clinic and a dental office. Vidal Espinosa was not qualified to perform those inspections. Espinosa has since left the Albuquerque Planning Department.

Director Lubar said she did not know why unqualified building inspectors were assigned to perform critically important medical gas inspections.

“We are absolutely going to try and find out. I don’t know if we will know,” Lubar said.

Albuquerque’s Chief Building Official, Land Clark, oversees the Building Safety Division. Clark admits unqualified inspectors did perform medical gas inspections contrary to the rules. He said he did not know at the time that the uncertified inspectors were violating state rules.

“This is very serious. We take regulation very seriously and it is our job and we did not do a good job here,” Land Clark said.

KRQE News 13 asked Roger Coble about the allegations.

“I think you are being misled,” Coble said. When asked if he had done any medical gas inspections since he started work for the city in 2013, Coble said, “I believe I have. Not very many.”

Over the course of 16 months, two uncertified Albuquerque building inspectors performed 15 medical gas inspections at 9 healthcare facilities. Land Clark says one is too many. However, Clark adds, “We do about 85,000 inspections a year and we did mis-assign 15 of them.”

KRQE News 13 has learned that as early as 2013 Roger Coble was told by the medical gas industry he needed certification to perform medical gas inspections. In April 2015, the State Regulation and Licensing Department (RLD) was tipped off to Albuquerque’s faulty medical gas inspections.

“The city did not make us aware of the scope and the number of inspections they were making. They had kind of indicated there were one or two or maybe three, a small number. Apparently that number may be larger than we were originally led to believe,” RLD Superintendent Unthank told KRQE News 13.

Unthank said Albuquerque building administrators were confronted with the allegation they had used uncertified inspectors to do medical gas inspections. “The response was that they admitted it. They apologized,” Unthank said.

Unthank said medical gas inspections performed by uncertified inspectors are not valid.

“Some of these are installations at hospitals as well as dental clinics. We would definitely want to work with the city to go back and look at every one of those 15 (inspections) to make sure (the installations) are properly installed and certified,” Unthank told KRQE News 13.

In an effort to ensure that medical gas equipment is safe, the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department directed Albuquerque’s Building Safety Division to document the re-inspection of all nine healthcare facilities that received faulty oversight.

“We can honestly tell the public that at no time were the businesses, the employees or the customers of those businesses in danger,” said Planning Director Lubar. “That doesn’t excuse the fact that we did not have the proper certification. We absolutely should have had that,” Lubar added.

Following the state RLD investigation, Roger Coble enrolled in an online medical gas inspection course. He received his medical gas certification in May 2015. Coble’s supervisor, Land Clark, said he is “disappointed” in Roger Coble. Clark told KRQE News 13 Coble would be “held accountable” if it is determined Coble knew he needed certification prior to doing medical gas inspections. The City of Albuquerque has hired a private investigator to look into the matter.

There is no evidence the owners of the nine healthcare properties that received faulty medical gas inspections knew inspectors were not qualified.

“We are apologetic. We are very sorry. We are also human and sometimes we make mistakes,” Suzanne Lubar said. “We are trying to make every effort to make it right and we do apologize,” Lubar added.

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