San Juan County Fire & Rescue warns about dangers of septic tanks

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BLOOMFIELD, N.M. — Septic tanks are common in New Mexico. In San Juan County, there are 30,000 of them.

“Elementary school kids are getting to play with those exercise balls, that’s basically cut in half, and you can put on the ground, and if it’s green that looks exactly like that,” said Shay Aurnhammer, captain with San Juan County Fire and Rescue, as she pointed to a septic tank lid.

They are a potential danger that could be lurking in your front yard.

“Not everyone is aware of it until something bad has happened,” Aurnhammer said.

Something bad has happened five times in the last five years.

“Septic tank lids look like playground equipment, and they’ll immediately start jumping from lid to lid and if they are not secured it will just slip out from under them and they’ll go in,” Aurnhammer added. “We had an incident where the child was reported as missing, we kind of had all hands-on deck looking for the child and we found footprints leading to the septic tank and, ultimately, that’s where he ended up.”

Four out of the five incidents involved children. In three of those cases, the child died. The fourth child will suffer long-term effects.

“It’s gotten to a point where if we get called out to assist with looking for a missing child we will ask if there are any septic tanks in the area, that’s not something we should be used to, that not something we should be having to ask for because we are responding to it once a year at least,” Aurnhammer said.

These calls are not only heartbreaking for first responders – they’re also dangerous rescues.

“There was one call that first responders were performing life-saving measures on one of the children, the medics were trying to make their way around him, they also stepped on the other septic tank lid and almost fell in themselves.”

Aurnhammer said this is all preventable.

“Making sure that the lid is secure, it’s got all the screws in place, don’t uncover it, or leave it unattended uncovered at any time,” Aurnhammer said.

You should also immediately replace the lid once it’s sun damaged. You can also install a secondary safety device inside the septic tank riser.