JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The death of a 3-year-old boy whose body was found in an underground tank at a Jacksonville city park raised many questions about the safety of septic tank systems near where children play.
The I-TEAM has been working to get answers, visiting all 76 park and boat ramp locations with city-managed septic and lift stations, like the one where Amari Harley died at Bruce Park in Arlington.
Mayor Lenny Curry said city workers have also reviewed all 76 locations. The I-TEAM has requested copies of those inspection reports, but we have not heard back from the city.
We also asked to go out with Public Works and city parks crews inspecting the septic systems, but that request was denied, so we continued with our own inspections until we had visited every location on the city's list.
And we discovered a variety of issues. The most striking concern was the wide variations in safety features and materials used for the septic tank covers.
At one park alone -- Ringhaver Park in southwest Jacksonville -- we found three types of septic system covers.
One was either plastic or fiberglass, a second had a metal, padlocked lid, and another at the security trailer was a bolted-down fiberglass cover.
No one could explain why the park has three types of covers, but the variations are something the mayor said he wants to change citywide.
“We are going to have a plan to standardize every single lid, so when we roll out our final review, I can tell you I am going to order that we standardize the lid process in Jacksonville and all of our parks to make sure that safety is the priority,” Curry said.
At Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park's beach access, the I-TEAM exposed a potential danger with a tank lid that appeared secured with a lock but had corroded bolts. It took little effort to open the cover on the sewage tank, which appeared to be several feet deep and reeked of human waste.
Maintenance workers we alerted assured us the lid would be repaired immediately, and they held true to their word.
When we went back the next day, we found brand new screws drilled tightly into the concrete, holding down a bar with locks on either end, making it impossible for anyone without tools to remove the protective cover.
What we found
In making our rounds over the last week, we found some parks have gone to extremes to make sure septic tank sites are locked up and inaccessible to children or adults.
In dozens of the locations we visited across the city, we found an abundance of safety precautions.
Some have locked fences and metal plates covering the septic tanks. Some had padlocks on them, and several parks had locked buildings where only certain people had access to the tanks.
At Glynlea Park in the Holiday Hill area, Lonnie C. Miller Sr. Regional Park in Northwest Jacksonville and Cuba Hunter Park on the Southside, the sewage tank areas are fenced in, so it would be extremely difficult for a small child to gain access.
But even fences aren't foolproof. At Jim King Park and Boat Ramp at Sisters Creek Marina on the Northside, we found the gate to the lift station had been left wide open, making it unsecure.
At some parks, like the one at the Maxville Athletic Association on the far Westside, fiberglass tops are bolted down for safety. But at that park, we saw some heavy equipment had recently come through, coming close to the tanks, which could easily have caused damage because the tanks are exposed and not fenced in or in a building.
At Forestview Park south of Soutel Drive in the Harborview section of northwest Jacksonville, we found a similar system and fiberglass tank lid to the one Amari is believed to have fallen into.
The flimsy top was bolted in place but several bolts were missing and it could easily give way.
Several of the locations we checked have heavy cement covers over the septic tanks.
At Carvill Park in the Norwood area of northwest Jacksonville, just southwest of Interstate 95 and Lem Turner Road, we saw concrete lids that appeared to have been recently cemented. It was clear some type of recent repair had been done, because there was still dirt around both tank covers.
At Castaway Island Preserve, the beaches Boys and Girls Club, Ed Austin Regional Park, Brookview Elementary School Park and the Windy Hill Center, we saw the covers to the underground waste tanks tightened securely. Some of them were made out of concrete and others out of a hard plastic material.
A park on the Southbank Riverwalk and the Mayport boat ramp both had locked metal covers on tanks. But the Mayport boat ramp also had two tanks with cement covers, including one that easily popped up when it was stepped on.
Burnett Park in Mandarin had caution tape surrounding its septic tanks with obvious signs of recent work being done. The city told us the caution tape was because the lid was missing a bolt.
At the Cedar Hills Athletic Association on Watoma Street we found some of the worst conditions at any park we've visited. The upkeep is almost nonexistent.
The city-maintained septic tank system at the property has concrete lids, but there is no fence keeping people away and the lids can be easily moved by an adult.
Some of the parks we tried to check were inaccessible. The Tillie K. Fowler Regional Park on the Westside, which has two septic tanks, was closed because of storm damage.
The I-TEAM will revisit that park when it reopens as we continue to investigate septic tank safety at area parks.
The mayor said his teams will continue checking things out, as well.
“Anywhere they can be strengthened, they will be strengthened,” Curry said.
On Friday night, a city spokeswoman sent News4Jax the following statement:
The City of Jacksonville continues to mourn the tragic loss of Amari Harley. While JSO continues its investigation, city officials are assisting JSO and conducting their own review.
Throughout this week, dozens of staff members from Parks & Recreation, Public Works, the Mayor’s Office, and ERS (Environmental Remediation Services, Inc.), the contractor who conducts monthly inspections of various city-managed septic and lift stations, have been leading comprehensive assessments and reviews of our existing wastewater systems, practices and operations.
Each of the 76 sites listed on the ERS inspection reports have been re-visited this week for examination of its septic systems. The parks and public facilities that are not on the ERS list and maintained by the city, including Forestview have also been visited.
Adhering to Mayor Curry’s request for a thorough and complete audit and review of all systems, Parks and Public Works staff are evaluating each and every city park and public building to reconfirm our inventory and assess conditions. While the task is great, so is the mayor’s dedication to public safety and commitment to stronger processes, operations and procedures.
Following the inventory and assessments, the city and contractors will work collaboratively to establish standardized operating procedures for all on-site wastewater systems to ensure consistency and safety while minimizing any threats of damage, tampering or vandalism that could result in injury or harm.”
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