The Stafford County Board of Supervisors ordered the immediate safety inspection of septic tanks at mobile home parks following the death in April of a 4-year-old boy who apparently fell into a tank near his home.
"Truthfully, we don't even have the jurisdiction to do those inspections," said David E. Beitz, the county's director of code compliance.
Beitz said if a septic tank is found to be unsafe, all an inspector can do is suggest to the owner that it be fixed and give the information to the commonwealth's attorney for review.
"We are specifically directed by law to stay clear of septic tanks," Beitz said. "We cannot by law regulate septic tanks."
Concern over the boy's death prompted county officials to order the inspections anyway.
At the same time, those officials called for changes in the law to specifically require regulation and inspection of septic tank systems at mobile home parks.
County Administrator Richard Bain was expected to discuss the issue of septic tank inspections at a meeting of the Board of Supervisors this week.
Meanwhile, the county prosecutor's office is continuing its investigation into the death of Richard Stanley Samperton, who died at a Woodbridge Hospital after he fell into a 4,000-gallon septic tank at the Widewater Trailer Court in Stafford.
The state health department only has limited authority to inspect tanks in mobile home parks, officials said.
"We only inspect as far as the initial installation of the unit and after that if there is a complaint," said W.R. Mabe, sanitary supervisor for the state health department's Rappahannock District, which includes Stafford County.
"It's entirely the responsibility of that property owner," Mabe said. "Just like if someone were to fall on my steps, I am responsible and this is the same thing."
The 25-year-old Widewater mobile home park has been owned for about four years by Barry Wright of Manassas.
"We are always trying to go through and fix things up," Wright said.
"And we are always trying to get the parents to monitor the kids to make sure they don't get into things. I just think it Samperton's death was a very unfortunate event. I don't know how it will be corrected, but we still have to get in there and service those tanks once a month."
"A kid who sets his mind to do something is going to do it. You just have to make it as difficult as you can for him," Wright said.
The incident was investigated by Detective Danny Hatch of the Stafford County Sheriff's Department, who has sent a report of his findings to the commonwealth's attorney.
"By the time anyone had bothered to inform us, the top was already put back on it. And there's no way to tell if it was on the same way. Everyone agrees that it was a half-inch thick plywood piece with a six-pound piece of concrete on top," Hatch said.
He speculated that two other 4-year-olds, at the site when the incident happened, may have helped Samperton lift the lid.
"The way it was on top of that plywood, it was a smooth surface and they could have dragged it off. There were some marks like something was dragged across it," Hatch said.
Wright denied any fault in connection with the boy's death. "As I understand it, the county was very familiar with the situation and came out about once a month and were aware of that situation," Wright said. "They were there when the old top broke," knew it had been cracked and had been replaced, Wright said.
Beitz, informed of Wright's comments said, "I don't now what he's talking about. We would have been out there when we were called to go out there on a new trailer being put in."
As to Wright's claim that county inspectors were aware that the lid to the septic tank was cracked and had been replaced with the plywood and concrete weight, Beitz said he was not personally aware of it. Beitz said that if any inspectors had known about the condition of the septic tank cover, they would have reported it to him.
Stafford Commonwealth's Attorney Daniel M. Chichester said individuals can be charged with criminal violation of the state health code, which requires that septic tanks be watertight and possess "watertight tops."
Chichester said that while he continues his investigation of Samperton's death, he may ask his brother, Virginia state Sen. John Chichester (R-Fredericksburg) to introduce legislation in the General Assembly that would specifically require inspections of septic tank systems at mobile home parks.
"We're still looking at the possible violation in health code," he said. "I'm also looking at it in terms of drafting legislation. I think it's an area where there could be some legislation that might prevent this sort of thing."
Samperton's father said although something positive may result from the boy's death, the memory of how he died will not be erased.
"Nobody here now will be with us when we have to sit down with his sister and tell her about what happened to her brother," he said.