Current Regulations Didn’t Prevent Septic Tank Death

Another tragedy draws attention to the lack of standardization and quality inspections of septic tank lids
Current Regulations Didn’t Prevent Septic Tank Death

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The death of a 3-year-old boy in Florida recently sparked a TV news investigation of underground tank safety and promises from the mayor of Jacksonville to standardize all the tank lids used in city parks.

Florida regulations require tanks to be covered in such a way that manholes are resistant to vandals, tampering and children. Methods to secure tanks may be a lock, lid requiring special tools for removal, or lid weighing at least 58 pounds, regulations say.

On Oct. 22, Amari Harley disappeared during a family birthday party at the city’s Bruce Park. The police search eventually focused on an underground septic tank. The boy’s body was found inside when the tank was drained just before 8 p.m. that evening.

In January, the city had a complaint about an uncovered tank at the same park, and the city says it fixed the problem the next day. WJXT television talked with an 8-year-old girl who says she fell into the same tank about two months before Amari Harley. She says she ran across the cover, and it gave way beneath her. She managed to catch herself on the sides of the tank, and her mother pulled her out.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry says he planned to order the city to standardize lids at every park.

“When we roll out our final review, I can tell you I am going to order that we standardize the lid process in Jacksonville, in all of our parks, and ensure that safety is our top priority,” Curry tells WJXT.

That pledge came after WJXT reporters visited all 76 parks and boat ramps where the city manages septic tanks and lift stations. They found a variety of tank covers made of various materials. At one park, they found a plastic or fiberglass cover; another opening with a metal lid and padlock; and a third opening covered with a bolted fiberglass lid. At a second park, reporters found a lid that was apparently secured yet easily opened because the bolts were corroded. Many parks had substantial security, the reporters found, including lids with padlocks and, in some cases, access openings inside buildings that were closed to the public.

Patrick Mullhall, vice president at Polylok Inc. / Zabel, says it was good of the journalists to look at the public sites, but risk extends beyond public property.

“If you look at just the private homes within Jacksonville, you’re talking hundreds of thousands with the same problem lurking in backyards,” he says.

His advice for professionals dealing with septic tank covers comes in two parts.

Part one is to inspect what’s there. Make sure the lid is in good shape, and if it is locked with any type of fastener, make sure the riser material is in good shape so the fastener is solidly bedded. Then, make sure you use all those fasteners.

“If there are eight screws on a cover, eight screws should go back in,” Mullhall says.

For fasteners he recommends stainless steel because it will better survive the corrosive gases generated in a tank and, for those near the ocean, better survive in salt air.

Part two is providing a second layer of safety in case a tank opening is exposed. He can’t give a specific solution because it depends on what is being installed and what a manufacturer provides, but “there should be safety redundancy,” Mullhall says. “To me, it’s just utterly foolish if you don’t have a secondary means of protection. And it’s cheap.”

Manufacturers offer products such as screens that fit inside a riser and prevent someone from falling in, or locking mechanisms that require a key, he says. All tanks can be retrofitted with safety devices.

Remember that an accident like this can happen in a moment. In one case, Mullhall says, a professional servicing a tank walked back to his truck while leaving a lid off. In that short time a child found the opening and fell in. Few states mandate safety devices, but more of them are realizing the importance of such requirements, he says.


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