Why Do Children Continue to Die in Septic Tank Mishaps?

The onsite industry preaches customer education and produces products to secure tank lids, but tragedy still strikes

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The words pumper Wade Dooley wrote in a column 11 years ago come back to me every time we experience another tragedy of a child falling into a septic tank and dying or being seriously hurt.

It happened again last fall in Jacksonville, Florida, when a 4-year-old boy, Amari Harley, fell into an unsecured septic tank and drowned while playing in a public park. It was similar scenario in 2007 when 3-year-old Loic J.M. Rogers fell into a tank in Kalispell, Montana, prompting Dooley to write letters to newspapers across the state, warning of this danger.

How many times do we have to scream about damaged or unsecured lids before people take action and no other precious children’s lives are lost in this disturbing and senseless way?

Here’s what Dooley wrote so long ago:

“The loss of life should be a wake-up call for all of us. When it comes to septic tanks, we all must do our part in making sure that they are cleaned and operating correctly; not only for the protection of our groundwater and health. We must think safety. If you are unsure of the condition of your septic tank or lid, contact a licensed septic service to inspect your system. Meet with them and have them explain any potential problems. … Please add this to your family’s to-do list. It might save a life.”

The boy in Montana was at his babysitter’s house when he wandered off a walkway and came upon a septic tank lid that had been damaged and left unrepaired. When the boy stood on or crawled over the lid, it flipped 180 degrees and he fell in and drowned. The homeowner knew the lid was damaged, but never thought it could be a danger, Dooley explained.

“Not only was this a terrible way to die, but it was completely preventable. I think it’s important to educate clients on the dangers of not fixing the septic system. Everyone can learn from this tragedy and we can set an example. I’d just like to turn something so negative into something hopefully that has some educational value,” Dooley said at the time. “We have a hot tub outside and we lock the lid. When you have a swimming pool, you put a fence around it. Yet they put 1,000 gallons of septage out there and they treat it like it’s not a hazard.”


Sadly, the recent Jacksonville case was eerily similar, and it appears many people involved showed little concern over a dangerous lapse in septic system maintenance. According to a 348-page police investigation into Harley’s death, the tank lids at Bruce Park — along with tanks at many public places in the city — had a history of poor maintenance and disregard for unsafe conditions. In fact, two months earlier a young girl fell into a septic tank at the same park, but thankfully she didn’t drown.

Apparently there was no standard for lid security at the city facilities. Several types of lids had been used and inspections often found them unsecured, broken or missing. A local TV news team that visited many parks even found open tanks covered with sheets of plywood as the only safeguard. The police report stated the tank Harley fell into had been found with no lid a month earlier, and on the day of the death, it was secured with one rusty screw even though it had six places for fasteners.

“I did not observe that a screw was ever placed in this area,” a police investigator wrote, according to media accounts. Also, a member of Harley’s family said she observed another picnicker that day lift the septic tank lid and dump cooking oil into the tank.

Litigation is following the tragedy in Florida. The victim’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against a pumping company and inspection company that worked for the city.


There have been a number of situations like these reported over the 15 years I have covered the wastewater industry for COLE Publishing magazines. Each time this happens, I pray that it’s the last time. It amazes me that anyone would exhibit a casual attitude about septic tank lid safety, but it often seems people charged with caring for their septic systems either don’t know about safety concerns or aren’t worried they’ll ever encounter a problem.

And it’s not like the wastewater industry is indifferent to this issue.

Septic system maintainers and inspectors I know would never walk away from a damaged riser and lid or compromised manhole cover. They’d call for help and get it repaired before leaving the job site. Service providers believe in consumer education and constantly teach and preach to customers about maintenance of the entire system.

And manufacturers in the industry are well aware of tank security issues and release new products that, if used properly, would prevent these tragic deaths. You’ll find many of these companies featured in this month’s Product Focus feature highlighting innovations in septic tanks and components.

Over the years, we’ve seen the advent of screens, nets, and additional redundant security measures promoted by the companies that serve installers. And I don’t think they are done innovating. … They’ll strive to make these products more convenient to use and harder to vandalize.


Apart from the mounting human toll, these cases could have a chilling effect on the progress the onsite wastewater industry has made over recent years. Three examples come to mind:

Liability insurance will go sky-high for installers, inspectors and product manufacturers. No matter what services your business provides, insurance is becoming a bigger and bigger challenge. Think of health insurance for your employees and their families, as well as coverage for your trucks, equipment, and property. Now add to that the liability insurers are placing on you for system maintenance and the responsibility you have for protecting against unsafe lids. When do the costs fail to justify you offering those services?

It may seem too risky to bring tank access to the surface of the ground. For years, installers and pumpers have encouraged customers to make an investment in risers and lids to promote better access to septic tanks. Easier access equals a better maintenance program and a more effective onsite system. When you open the tank and look it over every year, the septic system will last longer, perform better and ensure a cleaner environment. That has been a positive message to homeowners and commercial onsite users over the years. But how many of these senseless deaths does it take before onsite users start saying that there is a downside to creating better tank access?

Bad publicity brings the big pipe. Decentralized wastewater technologies have been gaining respect as an effective answer, specifically to rural and suburban treatment needs. It’s taken a long time, but governments now recognize it’s not always the best move to expand municipal sewer systems farther and farther out. Officials now see onsite systems are a cost-effective, permanent wastewater solution in many situations. But if our leaders start to doubt that users and professional maintainers can ensure the safety of these systems, the onsite trend could see a reversal in favor of sewer expansion. We know that’s not the right way to go.


Unfortunately, the important message of lid safety is slow to take hold with your onsite customers. But we can’t give up. The safety of our children is at stake. Whenever you have the opportunity, talk to customers about the importance of regularly inspecting their lids and risers for damage or vandalism. Encourage them to call you if they have questions about safety.

Get involved in public discourse on this issue. Join Dooley by contacting your local media outlets and bring light to these tragic cases and explain how everyone can help prevent them in the future. Use your website and social media to call out to customers, friends, and community members about this issue. If we all pitch in, we may be able to save a child from a terrible fate.


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