Action News Investigates: Converting Jacksonville's aging infrastructure

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Old, cracked septic tanks are leaking sewage into local waterways. Right now, there are tens of thousands of septic tanks in Jacksonville, but the city is ramping up a new project to phase them out.

Action News' Dawn Lopez took a look at the problem and a possible solution for local families.

It's not dinner conversation, but it's life for thousands of local neighbors. "Our toilets get backed up and it comes up through the tub when it rains it comes up right here," said Everlena Wheaton.

This isn't rural America and we didn't time-warp back to the '50s. The Larson community is just minutes by car from downtown Jacksonville.
   
Thousands of homeowners in Larson and around the River City are not tapped into city's sewer lines.

"We can't just go and replace every septic tank, there are tens of thousands around the county," said Director Of Public Works Jim Robinson.

His department is converting old infrastructure -- pipes, drainage systems and septic tanks.

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"We are currently involved in a septic tank phaseout program in cooperation with JEA that is more focused on the result in water quality and enhancement to either the St. Johns River directly or tributaries," Robinson said.

The city does the work, but it's the homeowner who must pay to tap into city lines. There is grant money help pay for the conversion, but it's only for areas closest to waterways or areas with poor soil, that could lead to contamination.

"I was born here, lived here all my life and so we just decided to add on, when my mom and daddy died," said Cynthia Penland.

Penland doesn't want in; she has a well and her water right now is free. But if the health department decides she needs to convert, Penland may not have a choice.

"There's no cost for the actual hookup, but folks are concerned about ensuing a monthly bill that they will see from JEA, so the signup rate isn't great at this point, but we're working on trying to improve that," Robinson said.

For Stephen Graves and his family, the conversion is worth the cost, and will flush away an embarrassing problem.

"It would actually be kinda nice: We wouldn't have to worry about the smell, or over-flooding because when it over-floods we can't even let him out, he'll drink it and he'll get sick and it'll probably kill him,"
The grant program started last year, with a last of a little more than 750 homes. The health department will decide which areas to expand into next.

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