The Alabama State Senate has approved a bill by Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, that would require food establishments to more safely secure their grease traps.
Whatley’s bill — proposed after the death of 3-year-old Sadie Grace Andrews in Auburn — would require grease traps at restaurants to have a lock or security mechanism and be heavy enough to prevent accidental opening or intrusion.
Sadie died in a grease trap behind Bruster’s Ice Cream on East University Drive in October 2017. She had been playing with her siblings before falling into the 6-foot container, drowning before her parents could reach her.
Whatley said he is proposing the bill to prevent future tragedies like Sadie’s death.
“I think this bill will prevent another needless tragedy under these circumstances,” Whatley said.
When the bill was approved in committee last week, lawmakers added an amendment that would name the bill the “Sadie Grace Andrews Act.”
The bill requires businesses to ensure that the traps are secured at all times either with bolts or some other locking mechanism. The lids of the grease traps must also be heavy and capable of sustaining human weight.
If restaurants don’t comply with the regulations, they could face monetary fines up to $500 per violation.
Sadie’s death and a meeting with her parents sparked Whatley to make a change to the law. State law doesn’t currently regulate grease trap safety and local regulations are limited in scope.
“I reached out to the family and asked if they wanted to meet with me,” Whatley said. “I met with them and discussed their desires. I wanted to do what they wanted to do.”
Whatley said the family wanted to do something to promote public safety without putting an unnecessary burden on businesses.
After Sadie died, city officials launched an investigation into its grease trap policies and the case, which the Lee County Coroner’s Office ruled accidental, was to be put before a grand jury for disposition. The coroner said the grease trap “was not secure.”
The outcome of the case hasn’t been made public.
Before the incident, the city inspected traps — used to collect used grease and solids produced in the process of cooking — to ensure that they were regularly emptied in order to prevent the city’s wastewater system from becoming clogged.
But maintenance and safety were up to the private business. Bruster’s trap was inspected in June 2017.
Whatley is sponsoring the bill, and 18 other senators from both sides of the aisle are co-sponsors. It’ll now move to the House, where Republican Rep. Joe Lovvorn, from Auburn, will carry the legislation.
"It's something terrible for us to need to address, but hopefully we can avoid another senseless tragedy," said Lovvorn, a fire battalion chief and first responder in Auburn.
The Andrews family spoke in favor of the legislation during the committee’s meeting last week.
“I hope this law will help bring awareness to this issue and that it would prevent something like this from ever happening again,” said Tracy Andrews, Sadie’s father.
There are currently two other grease traps in Auburn with similar configurations to the grease trap at Bruster’s Ice Cream. The traps were located in an open area with a plastic lid.
The two other restaurants — including D Square Donuts and Venditori’s — already had additional safety mechanisms including steel screws or took additional action after Sadie’s death and requests from the city.
D Square Donuts already had posts and chains surrounding their grease trap.
Bruster’s complied with a request from city police to put a manhole neck and a metal cover over their grease trap. That wasn’t a legal requirement before.
"I wouldn't say it's the fault of any business, but in the wake of what happened, it could have been a regulation that was overlooked," Lovvorn said. "Now, we can maybe close the gap so something like this never happens again."
Whatley’s bill is modeled after a similar law from North Carolina.
There are dozens of other traps in Auburn but their lids are in roadways and other vehicle traffic areas, sealed with heavy metal covers similar to manholes.
Lovvorn said he filed the House version of the bill Tuesday and has asked for it to be expedited through the committee process. He said he hopes it will be in committee next week.