Monday's drowning death of a two year Lakewood girl after she fell into a septic drain is undeniably a tragedy, however are there regulations which could have prevented this?

Monday’s death of the two year old girl, only referred to as “JC”, was ruled an accidental drowning, however many believe it is an accident that could have been prevented.

Tom Cahill, Inspection Supervisor for NJ Septic Management Group in Belle Mead works hand in hand with the Department of Environmental Protection, he says the preexisting oversight focuses primarily on the installation of the septic systems.

Designs are submitted to a municipal or regional health department and they would hold approval over it. Additional reviews are done by County Health Department as well as the municipal engineering department if a township health department is unfamiliar with a septic design. Adding that local inspectors would be usually present at installation and would record the information.

“Other than that review process watching the installation, no one from any administrative authority comes to the property to examine that system for any reason unless there’s a report that something relating to the septic system is affecting public health.”

Meaning health investigators typically come to investigate if sewage or water was leaking onto the property or street explains Cahill. But he notes “other than that, the health department has nothing to do with day to day operation or overview of systems.”

Even if the property changes hands,Cahill says the onus has been only between buyers and sellers to set up an inspection if they needed, hiring a septic system or home inspector. However he says some communities, like Hopewell Township in Mercer County, that require home owners prove their well and septic systems are fully functioning before they can put the house on the market.

Once the system is installed, the oversight of the septic system leaves the hands of many higher authorities and is in the hands of communities. Meaning the degree of regulations varies from town to town.

“There are only seven municipalities that have requirements to pump out septic tanks every three YEARS... Initially that was required throughout the state when the septic code when in effect in 1990, there was so much noise from homeowners and contractors that the DEP pulled back that requirement by 1993.” Explains Cahill, adding that “most of the communities throughout New Jersey don’t have required maintenance for septic systems and again the health departments have very little to do with day to day or annual operations, and don’t get involved until a problem arises in some way.”

A statewide code titled NJ AC9A7-9A which all regional, municipal, and county departments have to abide by. However entities can have stricter regulations, and any proposed additions must be submitted to the DEP for approval.

The state however could be rolling out new regulations soon, as early as April. Members of the Water Quality Division have been working on proposed changes for the septic code, which went through a public comment period last year.

The new proposed codes would create more stringent requirements throughout the state. Cahill says for example for main access lids on septic tanks, it had been stated that they cannot be exposed at the surface since it presents a public safety issue and they must be buried at least six inches. However exposed lids must be lockable.

“The law that’s soon going to be in effect will no long allow concrete lids to be buried, its requiring all lids to have lids which must be lockable.”

Currently, responsibility for regulation falls on the home’s owner, but Cahill says the issue is that many people don’t know much about their own septic system.

“A lot of them actually believe that there septic is nothing more than a tank, it’s a hard to convince them there is actually a disposal or absorption area. Because people are all focused on ‘pump the tank, pump the tank’.”

Barring any legal holdups, the plan would go into effect April 1st.