Jacksonville, Florida, Officials Want Universal Design for Septic Lids After Child’s Death

Interested in Safety?

Get Safety articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Safety + Get Alerts

The death of a 3-year-old boy in Florida 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. Police came to focus their search 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 he says 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 (he recommends stainless steel) 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.

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

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, he says.

Remember that an accident like this can happen in a moment. In one case, Mullhall says, a pumper 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.


The LaPorte County Health Board took steps to shut down septic systems and halt construction because of rising water levels in Lake Michigan.

In 2013, the lake hit a record low, but it has since rebounded, although this summer’s high was still 2 feet below the record set in 1986. Yet, the water is high enough to flood septic systems along the shore.

As a result, two property owners in the community of Long Beach, about 2 miles from the Indiana-Michigan border, were ordered to shut down their septic systems. Their tanks will become holding tanks that must be pumped out regularly. The health board also put a moratorium on permits for new systems to be built next to the lake, and it revoked two permits issued for systems not yet built, reports The Michigan City News-Dispatch.

Several years ago, the Indiana Health Department revised its septic system placement rule to allow systems within 50 feet of the lake if the waste was pretreated. Previously, the limit was 200 feet. Patricia Sharkey of the Long Beach Community Alliance says some property owners rushed to take advantage of the relaxed rule.

“Our organization has long had concerns about septic systems being located too close to the water,” she says. “What we’re seeing is the result of that policy.”


A Cape Cod town rejected a proposed onsite treatment system for a laundromat. Instead, the town says it would work with the developer and the Sandwich Water District to pursue a better long-term solution.

Developer Thomas Tsakalos tells officials in the town of Sandwich that he wants to build an onsite system to treat water from the laundromat and discharge it into the ground. But, town bylaws prohibited such a discharge because the area is a protected water district.

Tsakalos tells officials those bylaws were written before the advent of modern treatment technology that can return wastewater to potable condition. He says he would use such technology for the 30,000 gpd flow from the laundromat, reports The Sandwich Enterprise.

Dan Mahoney, superintendent of the water district, says there were other concerns. He acknowledges the frustrations with current rules but says water commissioners are also worried about allowing pharmaceuticals and other contaminants of emerging concern to reach groundwater.


Kittitas County, which lies about 85 miles east of Seattle, is having difficulty screening septage received from local haulers. The bar screen that removes large debris has 3/8-inch openings, and there is no water at the receiving station to clean the screen, reports the Daily Record in Ellensburg, Washington. The county accepts about 1.2 million gallons of septage annually. County commissioners have requested that county staff investigate options for a water supply. That could be drilling a well or hauling in water.


A proposal for a Leelanau County septic ordinance was turned down once, but the county commissioner who proposed the idea says commissioners are now open to considering the idea again.

In July, county Commissioner Ty Wessell asked for the creation of a committee to research and write an ordinance that would include required inspections. But that idea failed to gain support among his fellow commissioners, reports the Traverse City Record-Eagle. Leelanau County occupies a peninsula in Lake Michigan on the northwestern side of the state’s lower peninsula.

Now, Wessell says commissioners are open to a recommendation from the health department operated jointly by Leelanau County and adjacent Benzie County. Tom Fountain, the health department’s director of environmental health, says rules cover new construction adequately but not older systems that could be covered by a point-of-sale inspection. He says there is talk that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder may push for a statewide point-of-sale rule before he leaves office at the end of this term.


Harford County will allow some construction on land that otherwise is reserved for expansion of an onsite system’s drainfield or replacement of a failing drainfield.

Under the legislation, the county health department could grant waivers for commercial or residential property owners to build in these septic reserve areas, reports The Baltimore Sun. Additions to existing structures, driveways and parking lots are among the construction that may be allowed if the property owners ensure their systems are working properly and meet all county and state requirements.

Only Councilman Chad Shrodes voted against the rule. He says waivers for commercial properties were fine, but he worried that residential property owners may not be able to afford the cost of demolishing a structure in order to repair a failing system, and he says some people may not know a previous owner built in a septic reserve area. In the past, Shrodes has supported legislation that reduced the area required for reserves. He says this rule further constricts property owners.

New York

The village of Southampton proposed legislation requiring state-of-the-art wastewater treatment technology for all new construction and some renovations. The same technology would be required for substantial changes to an existing onsite system.

The village is on the eastern end of Long Island and is part of Suffolk County where a number of communities, as well as the county itself, have been pushing or requiring better onsite technology to reduce the nitrogen load in nearshore waters of Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.

The proposed rule would not require an upgrade to existing systems unless there are plans for a new system or an expansion of a dwelling that increases the number of bedrooms, reports The Southampton Press.

Rhode Island

Because of public outrage over the cost, the Town Council in Coventry voted to suspend a sewer construction program. Coventry is on the edge of the urban area around Providence and touches the Connecticut border.

Citizens complained about the cost of hooking into municipal sewer service and leaving their onsite systems behind. The cost to join municipal sewer service was estimated at more than $20,000 per property, reports The Coventry Courier. More than 200 people filled a high school auditorium for a question-and-answer session with the town manager.

“I have a septic tank that works perfectly, and now they tell me I have to come up with another $20,000,” says one resident. “There is no way I can come up with that kind of money.”

Resident Janice Stenson asks how many of the homes in the town’s sewer facilities plan had failing septic systems.

“Rather than arbitrarily choose some streets, should you not have looked at the records first to see if (replacement is) needed?” she says.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.