White Flint, the ritzy Montgomery County mall that boasts of a certain ineffable air and promises to leave its shoppers "lost for words," has an odor problem these days that few people want to talk much about.
Recurring plumbing problems have sent raw sewage bubbling up through sink and water fountain drains and forced the county to periodically close the mall's restaurants for less than a day to clean up.
County health inspectors say they have been called to the mall several times over the last 14 months to determine whether sewage backups into stores, offices and restaurants at the Rockville Pike center have presented health problems for the people who work, shop and eat there.
"Complaints on sewage backups have been fairly frequent," said Sharon Martin, chief of the public facilities division of the county department of environmental protection. "We've been out there maybe two or three times for sewage in the food service facilities."
In some cases, the county has closed down the food service facilities until the mess could be cleaned up, Martin said. She described the materials backing up from the drains as a mixture of "feces, toilet paper and food waste."
The problems, according to Martin and tenants of the shopping center whose fashionable image was carefully constructed through expensive public relations, appear to center around a portion of the mall where the Eatery and other food service operations are located. But the source of the trouble has not been discovered.
"Individual food service facilities have been very cooperative," said Martin.
Yesterday, county inspectors were called to the offices of American Express and Citizens Bank and Trust, both located under the Eatery, to inspect flooding there. "There was evidence of sewage in the hand sinks [in bathrooms] and on the floor" said Martin.
The flooding did not look like sewage, said Anne Wolfe, manager of the American Express office. "It wasn't even food, it was crud," she said. "It looked like whatever you'd think waste water from a restaurant looks like."
K. B. Mercer, a saleswoman in The Limited, a women's clothing store, said flooding in that store had been a problem for the last two weeks. "It's food, human feces, coming right up, seeping up from the drain in the sink and from under the toilet [in the bathroom in the back of store]," she said.
The mall's operators have not been responsive to complaints about the sewage, Mercey said. The mall's operating office and the mall's developer and owner, Theodore N. Lerner, were not available for comment yesterday.
A Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission spokesman said the WSSC had received no complaints of backups involving the main sewer main into which White Flint's privately maintained sewer pipe system empties. White Flint is responsible for maintaining sewer pipes on the shopping center's site, the spokesman said.
Although the presence of sewage in the shopping center represents a potential health hazard, there is no indication that any health problems have occurred from the flooding, said Martin.
The two-year old mall now is fully occupied and operating at maximum plumbing usage, said Martin. Tenants said that on at least one occasion all toilets in the mall were shut off because of plumbing problems. "Sometimes they shut the system down themselves because they know it's going to fail," said Martin.