By MARY DAVID
University of Mary Washington alumnus Katie Molinaro, who graduated in December, was giving a campus tour in late September when the unmistakable odor of raw sewage permeated the area of the Woodard Campus Center.
“What is that smell?” a prospective student’s mother inquired as she wrinkled her nose in disgust.
According to Molinaro, this was the first of several incidents where she had to explain the odor.
“I would just laugh about it, [and] say ‘I’m sure they’re working to fix it,’” Molinaro said. “If I’d been able to tell them what it was, it would have been better.”
The smell was the result of raw sewage overflowing from a sanitary sewer line into the stream outside of the Eagles Nest, according to Vice President of Facilities Services John Wiltenmuth.
Facilities Services addressed the problem three weeks into the semester. This was not the first time there was a sewage buildup on campus, and Wiltenmuth said it won’t be last.
Debris caught in the pipes of a sanitary sewer line in front of the Woodard Campus Center causes sewage build-ups and channels waste water into the stream outside of the Eagles Nest. Wind carries the odor from the blockages to various parts of campus.
Wiltenmuth said that although the blockages result from the age and structure of the pipes and that future blockages are likely, there are no specific plans to replace the pipes. He said replacing the most problematic sections of the pipes alone would cost between two and three million dollars.
One student and one faculty member first reported the odor to facilities services on Sept. 19, and the blockage was removed on the same day. Wiltenmuth said that the smell eventually subsided with the passage of time and rainfall.
“It was disgusting,” said senior Clare Sanchez. “I don’t remember smelling anything like that on our campus in previous years to be quite honest.”
The Bullet reported an odor around the Jepson Science Center in an editorial in February. Prior to that, there are no records of the smell.
Senior Khamla Nanthana was frustrated by the odor and concerned about the potential health risks.
“It is kind of like an embarrassment, it’s like a health standard,” she said. “It gave me a headache.”
Wiltenmuth said the smell is not hazardous, but students said it still troubles them.
“I smell it and I seriously gag,” Sanchez said. “It’s like walking in and just opening up some putrid trash and you want to close it immediately.”
Senior Taylor Edwards found the smell particularly upsetting.
“When you smell it, it kind of just ruins whatever you’re thinking about,” Edwards said. “It…disrupts your thought process and that part of the day you’re kind of disturbed.”
Senior Mary Haggerty said it affected her every time she ate a meal on campus.
“It definitely made the food seem worse,” she said.
Sophomore Jesse Kopps created a group on Facebook about the smell to vent his aggravation called “About the Poop Smell,” and currently it has 39 members. He said it used to have around 70 members, but that the number diminished as the odor receded.
According to Wiltenmuth, the sanitary sewer pipes date back to the 1930s and are susceptible to waste blockages because they are made up of many sections.
Due to the age and number of segments of the pipes, materials such as tree roots get caught in the middle or on the pipes’ edges. The debris impedes the regular course of waste through the sewer lines, causing an overflow into the stream between Seacobeck Hall and the Eagles Nest. He added that man hole lids can vent sewer gases and expel unpleasant aromas around the Campus Center.
Senior Michele Carneiro described the smells from the gases around the Campus Center as “repulsive.”
“I will literally run through that area to get away,” she said.
Wiltenmuth said “a capital project” to replace sections of the pipe has been discussed, but further action has not been taken.
“No specific plans have been submitted to the state for funding or approval at this date,” Wiltenmuth said.
Some students said that while they found the smell aggravating, it did not affect their daily routines.
“I know it grossed me out, but it never really affected me that much,” senior Peter Rydell said.
Senior Kyle Coppinger said he just “dealt with it” and held his breath when he walked by the Campus Center.
Others expressed concern about how the smell would affect the University’s reputation.
“I mean, tours come around campus all the time, and if there’s a sewage smell, it’s really going to deter from the image that [the University] has,” Edwards said.
Molinaro, the University of Mary Washington tour guide, worried about what prospective students would think as well.
“I hope that someone wouldn’t make their decision [on whether to attend the University] just based on that, but I also hope they don’t go back and say, ‘Oh, Mary Washington was a school that smells bad.’”
Kopps, the student who started the “About the Poop Smell” Facebook group, hopes that the University finds a permanent solution to the problem soon. “It’s obviously a problem that should be fixed,” he said. “Nothing good comes from the poop smell.”