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A foul smell in Fairhaven complex reveals concerning sewage leak

Frustration, concern grows as WWU Facilities works to fix this issue

The Fairhaven complex stormwater drain, which feeds into the creek that flows through the Outback Farm, on Oct. 24, 2023. The gray cloudy water is a result of sewage contamination in the water. // Photo by Olivia Marty

Editor's note: A previous version of this story, including previous photo captions, misidentified Western Washington University's stormwater system, which has been restored to a creek environment that flows through the Outback Farm, as Conneley Creek.

On Oct. 17, many residents in the Fairhaven dorms on Western Washington University's campus started to notice a foul smell. Many wondered about the origins of the smell and posted online to ask if anyone knew what it was. 

By Oct. 23, University Residences at Western put out a statement, stating there was a “presence of a small sewage outflow.” This has turned out to be a big problem for many people, including Western’s Facilities Department, The Outback Farm and students. 

The smell was caused by a sewage pipe leak in the stormwater drain, which feeds into the creek that flows through the Outback. 

The leak in the stormwater pipe is due to its age, as the Fairhaven stacks were constructed in the 1970s. It’s also due to its close proximity to the sewage system pipes, which run in the same area, said Amanda Cambre, the director of facility management at Western. 

However, this incident is not new to many familiar with the area, as a similar sewage leak happened in September 2022. 

Water warning

A sign reads, “OOPS! Creek is contaminated. You may sniff something… stay out of water!” on Oct. 22, 2023. This sign is located outside of The Outback Farm in Bellingham, Wash. near the Fairhaven complex. // Photo by Olivia Marty

This has not only caused a disturbance to residents in Fairhaven but also to employees of The Outback Farm. Recently, it caused The Outback to cancel its annual Fall Harvest Jubilee and stop other work events. 

“It really affects our ability to have a minimally enjoyable working environment,” said John Tuxill, The Outback's faculty advisor. 

The once clear the creek flowing through the Outback is now a murky gray color and gives off a pungent smell throughout the area. This creek sits in an ecological restoration site, which The Outback has been working on in recent years. 

“The stream itself is an actual restored wetland with native species, so all of that restoration is directly impacted by contamination,” Tuxill said. 

Signs are posted around the area, warning people to stay away from the contaminated creek. These signs were put up last year by faculty at The Outback when the first leak happened, and were not taken down because the Outback could not definitively say the creek was safe, Tuxill said.

“In general, sewage can contain bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. People should avoid contact with water that has elevated levels of bacteria,” said Scarlet Tang, the communications manager for the northwest region of the Washington State Department of Ecology.  

Many students have complained about the smell online – some students could even smell it inside their rooms in the Fairhaven dorms. Many have avoided the area, and work on The Outback Farm is currently minimal. 

The leak has also caused other issues in the Fairhaven complex, including leaks and outflows in buildings. 

“In Fairhaven stack 10 there was a sewage backup on the third floor that damaged the second and first floors,” Cambre said. 

This sewage leaking into the utility tunnels under the buildings is causing many problems for both Fairhaven College students and workers fixing the leak, Cambre said. 

Because of these incidents, combined with the smell and the leak last year, many people are frustrated with Western Facilities, feeling the leak needs to be resolved quickly. 

“For me, the big question for facilities, the president and all the upper-level administrators is, 'What are we doing to make sure this doesn’t happen again next year?'” Tuxill said. 

Solving this issue is no easy task for facilities, as the pipes sit 16 feet underground and the source has not been identified. They must also completely shut off the water to fix the issue, which can only be done over breaks when most students are gone, Cambre said. 

“We are doing everything we can to identify it as quickly as possible, and also acknowledge that the smell is real, the impact is real. None of us are happy about this,” Cambre said. 

Downstream conditions

A footbridge over the creek that flows through the Outback Farm in Bellingham, Wash. on Oct. 24, 2023. The water under this footbridge is gray and foamy, due to being downstream from the leak. // Photo by Olivia Marty

Reported as a small leak, it should be taken very seriously and has been by Western Facilities Management, who are testing drinking water daily for contamination. 

“‘Small’ is a subjective term; a large city might consider a certain volume of sewage to be small while the same amount might seem large to a homeowner dealing with a failing septic system,” Tang said. 

The timeline for fixing the issue is unknown, as diagnosing the source of the leak is a complicated and time-consuming task, Cambre said. 

In the meantime, it is doing unknown damage to both the natural and social environments of the area, Tuxill said. 

On Nov. 9, Joyce Lopes from the Vice President’s Office of Business & Financial Affairs put out a statement clarifying that “there is no indication that the soil in the Outback Farm is impacted. None of the cultivated areas adjoin the stream channel directly, and no crops are growing at this time.” 

This statement contains information about the leak in more detail and can be read here.

Editor's note: An update on the leak's source and repairs can be read here.

Olivia Marty

Olivia Marty (she/her) is a campus life reporter for The Front. She is a sophomore majoring in public relations journalism. In her spare time, Olivia loves going thrifting, watching documentaries, and crafting. She can be reached at

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