Patapsco's Smoldering Dump

February 08, 1991

For several years now, Christmas tree farmer James Jett has made a nice profit by allowing parts of his 220-acre farm, at Dogwood and Wrights Mill roads, to be used as a dump. Up to 100 tractor-trailers a day ferried tree stumps and construction debris to the site near Patapsco State Park, infuriating neighbors alarmed by the heavy traffic. But until a fire was detected at the dump early last Saturday, the problem was strictly a local one.

By early Monday morning, dense smoke from Mr. Jett's farm reached downtown neighborhoods -- some 15 miles away -- setting off smoke detectors and puzzling sleepy residents. A little-noticed dump had suddenly become an area-wide health hazard. Yet this may only be the start. Because of the unusually warm weather, smoke has been rising to higher altitudes. Should a cold snap suddenly develop, smoke would cling closer to the ground, creating the possibility of respiratory difficulties.

"We are just in the early days. It will be going on for weeks," said Battalion Chief Ralph Nelson. All told, the county has eight pieces of fire apparatus and about 40 fire fighters -- from as far away as Essex and Dundalk -- at the site 24 hours a day. The cost to county taxpayers is not yet known, but Chief Nelson thinks it will be "staggering."

For all these years, Mr. Jett has been operating his dump without a permit. None was required. After much controversy, a new county law was enacted in October. But its drafters never considered the possibility of a dump catching fire and becoming a major source of air pollution. When the fire began, Mr. Jett's application was still under consideration by county authorities.

Baltimore County faces a dilemma. The county's own landfills are overwhelmed just with ordinary refuse. For that reason, the county has been tolerant about private dumps which have handled such space-consuming items as tree trunks and construction debris. In fact, the county itself has occasionally used Mr. Jett's dump.

This prolonged fire underscores the inadequacy of Baltimore County's new dumping law. We urge the administration of Roger Hayden to halt dumping at Mr. Jett's site, at least temporarily, so further conflagrations can be prevented. Meanwhile, changes should be made in the law to require that any dumping of combustible materials at private sites be done only in compartmentalized spaces. That way any outbreak of fire can be contained.

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