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Special Report - Silent Killer

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LANSING Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) – Weeks after a deadly carbon monoxide leak at a West Michigan hotel, the Newschannel 3 I-Team has obtained documents from 2007 showing opposition by the Michigan Lodging and Tourism Association (MLTA) to legislation that might have prevented the tragedy.

Currently under Michigan law, only hotels built after the start of 2009 are required to have carbon monoxide detectors.

The Quality Inn & Suites hotel in Niles at the center of a recent carbon monoxide leak was built before 2009, and did not have any carbon monoxide detectors.

“It was a nightmare scenario for me that something might happen on this issue,” said State Senator Steve Bieda (D), referring to the death of 13-year-old Bryan Douglas-Watts, who died in the hotel after being exposed to the deadly levels of carbon monoxide.

Back in 2007, then State House Rep. Bieda proposed House Bill 4730, which would have made it mandatory for all hotels in Michigan to have carbon monoxide detectors.

The bill passed in the House, but was later changed in the Senate to only require hotels built after 2009 to have CO detectors.

Bieda says once the Senate made changes, there was little, if anything he could do.

“I think had that legislation passed as I intended it, we would have prevented this tragedy,” he said, before cautioning that the investigation into the leak was still ongoing.

Shortly after the deadly CO leak in Niles, the Michigan Lodging and Tourism Association (MLTA) told Newschannel 3 it would be sending out “an alert to all of our members and to the industry reminding them how critical it is that they have this type of safety equipment in place.”

However, the Newschannel 3 I-Team learned that back in 2007 and throughout 2008, the MLTA remained opposed to the law that would have required CO detectors in all hotels.

Archives in Lansing provided to Newschannel 3 show multiple reasons cited by the MLTA for its opposition to House Bill 4730.

“At this early stage in our research, we are unable to find an instance of a carbon monoxide death in a lodging property ever having taken place in Michigan,” reads the testimony of Steve Yencich, then a representative for the MLTA.

“Only 20% of states have enacted legislation similar to HB 4730…a vast majority carbon monoxide deaths occur in places other than hotels, motels or resorts,” he adds.

According to the documents obtained by Newschannel 3, however, the MLTA sourced research showing there were approximately 130 CO incidents occurring at hotels each year.

Yencich also cited the potential costs of making CO detectors mandatory as a reason for opposing the bill.

“Commercial grade carbon monoxide detectors are much more expensive,” he wrote, noting that HB 4730 required hard-wired detectors.

The MLTA was not alone in its opposition to HB 4730 shortly after its introduction. It was also opposed by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Association of Realtors, although it enjoyed the support of the State Fire Marshall, the Department of Labor and the Michigan Professional Fire Fighters Union.

The current and CEO of MLTA, Deanna Richeson said that ultimately MLTA endorsed the less strict version of HB 4730, and that after the recent tragedy in Niles, is considering endorsing stronger carbon monoxide detector legislation.

“Our sympathies go out to all the families involved in this tragedy in Niles,” Richeson said.

“Obviously when a proposed bill is introduced, the whole industry has to be considered and we have to do research,” she added, when asked about the possibility of endorsing stricter regulations.

As for former Rep. Steve Bieda, who is now State Senator Steve Bieda---he confirms to Newschannel 3 that he is in the early stage of drafting new legislation that would be closer to his original version of HB 4730, therefore potentially putting more carbon monoxide detectors inside hotels.

Although Michigan’s carbon monoxide detector law has loopholes when it comes to hotels, it is one of the few states in the country with laws on the books requiring at least some hotels to have CO detectors.

15 states with in the U.S. have either carbon monoxide laws or statues according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but those laws vary in terms of consistency, enforcement and breadth.

Across the country, there are various efforts to strengthen carbon monoxide detector laws.

Donald Johnson is leading one of those efforts, the Lauren Project -- named after his daughter who died in a carbon monoxide leak in a Colorado apartment.

Johnson says the recent tragedy in Niles could have been prevented had stronger laws been in place, and noted how economical carbon monoxide detectors have become.

“We all have smoke alarms in homes and hotels, yet you can see smoke and smell it, but we don’t have carbon monoxide detectors everywhere, and it cannot be seen or smelled,” Johnson said, in an interview with Newschannel 3.

Johnson also said children tend to be more susceptible, making it even more important to push for laws that would put carbon monoxide detectors in schools as well as hotels. Michigan, unlike several other states, does not require CO detectors in schools.

Most recently, he helped legislators in North Dakota pass a bill that would have required CO detectors in new construction and in existing homes, but it was vetoed by North Dakota Governor Douglas Burgum.

Johnson didn’t mince words with his criticism of the Burgum shortly after the veto.

“Governor, this was a test about how much you care about the citizens of North Dakota…and you failed—miserably,” he wrote on the Lauren Project’s Facebook page.

“It’s not a liberal issue and it’s not a conservative issue,” he added. “Why wouldn’t we want to protect the families and children – and the people we love?”

The Niles Quality Inn has since reopened after the Carbon Monoxide leak.

The source of the leak was found to be a faulty pool heater in the pool area of the hotel, where a birthday party was taking place.

13-year-old Bryan Douglas Watts, from Niles died as a result, and others needed to be treated at a hospital, including several first responders.

Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic tells Newschannel 3 his office is looking over police reports on the incident, and deciding whether or not negligence charges will be filed against the hotel or possibly others.

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