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Small sewer spill rankles tenants at Old Mill Village

Smelly backup of grease, baby wipes didn't reach Lake Whatcom

Cones and caution tape surround a sewage spill at Old Mill Village apartments on Saturday
Cones and caution tape surround a sewage spill at Old Mill Village apartments on Saturday
By Ralph Schwartz Local Government Reporter

The odor wafting over the courtyard at Old Mill Village apartments on Friday, Nov. 24 wasn’t reheated Thanksgiving leftovers — not exactly, anyway.

Residents of the Lake Whatcom apartment complex at 2100 Electric Ave. had their long holiday weekend disrupted by foul-smelling sewage that spilled into a parking lot, the courtyard and at least one apartment unit, a tenant who is also president of the Silver Beach Neighborhood Association said.

“It was so pungent and disgusting,” neighborhood association President Kerri Burnside said, after swinging by the affected building to put eyes and nose on the problem.

City officials confirmed that none of the sewage had entered Lake Whatcom, the primary drinking-water source for Bellingham residents.

Burnside added that the property manager didn’t do enough to protect residents from the spill, which was eventually cleaned up on Saturday, Nov. 25. 

“They didn’t alert the health department, and they left raw sewage in the courtyard that blocked the elevator and access to mailboxes,” Burnside said.

In an email to tenants shared with Cascadia Daily News, Old Mill Village Property Manager Lynda Vargas said management “worked diligently to address [the spill] as promptly and efficiently as possible.”

The health department had given management until Monday, Nov. 27 to clear the mess, Vargas said, but the work was finished by Saturday.

Vargas and the management company, Peak Management, did not respond to a request for additional comment.

Peak Management indicated that the tenants themselves were responsible for the sewage backup.

“The issue was traced back to a buildup of grease and baby wipes, causing a blockage in the line,” a property manager email to tenants said.

A county health department representative pointed out that wipes advertised as “flushable” should not be flushed, after all.

“They can easily clog a sewer pipe, as they do not break down the same way as toilet paper,” health department Communications Specialist Marie Duckworth said. “Also, grease is a common culprit for blocked pipes. If a fat or cooking ingredient is solid at room temperature, dispose of it in the trash rather than down the drain.”

A representative of Bellingham Public Works said the department confirmed on Saturday the city’s sewer system was functioning correctly. The problem was limited to a pipe on private property.

photo  A sewage spill at Old Mill Village did not enter Lake Whatcom, city and county officials said. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

“Whatcom County Health and Community Services staff were also onsite, and all staff were able to confirm that there was no overflow into Lake Whatcom,” Public Works Communications and Outreach Manager Riley Grant said.

The health department is investigating the spill, Duckworth said. 

The City of Bellingham has no rules governing stormwater treatment at apartment complexes. Anything that enters the storm drains at Old Mill Village goes directly to Lake Whatcom.

City officials look to shore up protections of the lake’s water quality. They recently extended a moratorium on development of new apartments in the Silver Beach neighborhood, banning new construction in multifamily zones until they come up with requirements for treating stormwater before it reaches the lake. 

Peak Management and its tenants have a contentious recent history. Residents have filed complaints about leaking roofs, crumbling concrete stairs, broken windows and mold. 

Peak Management told Cascadia Daily News in June that it had already made several improvements to the property since acquiring it in June 2022 for $25 million. 

“We … will continue to do so in the best interest of our residents and the community,” a Peak representative said at the time.

Apartments at Old Mill Village passed their most recent city safety inspections in 2018, Bellingham Planning Director Blake Lyon said. The complex is scheduled for re-inspection in spring 2024.

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