A Baltimore County Circuit Court judge denied yesterday county government's request that the owner of a Granite stump dump that has been afire since last February be required to clean up the site.
Judge James T. Smith said testimony showed that the underground fires made a clean-up effort too dangerous.
He also said he was unconvinced by Fire Chief Elwood Banister's claim that debris on the four-acre portion of James F. Jett's Patapsco Valley Tree Farm could be cleaned up safely if attacked from its north side.
"He's not an engineer. He's not an earth mover. It's not his expertise," Judge Smith said.
The ruling came after a hearing requested by county attorney H. Emslie Parks for a court order requiring Mr. Jett to clean up a 100-foot by 50-foot pile of debris at his tree farm and stump dump on the 8700 block of Dogwood Road.
Thomas DeMay, president of the Greater Patapsco Community Association, called the ruling disappointing. He didn't blame the judge, but faulted the county government, which he said has largely ignored the community's concerns over the years and has failed to put out the fire.
"I think it points to the fact that the county still has not been doing its job," he said.
Judge Smith had ordered Mr. Jett to clean up the site May 30 and found him in contempt of court Aug. 1 after he failed to dispose of debris at the site that was not on fire.
But the earlier orders were based on a county request that Mr. Jett remove the debris if he continued to accept stumps. Mr. Jett shut down Aug. 2, a move that meant he could not take stumps, but that also freed him of any cleanup obligations.
In the meantime, there have been a series of fires. One on Aug. 12 had firefighters at the site for six hours. Another on Nov. 16 took 15 hours to extinguish and was captured on a videotape that was played in the courtroom yesterday.
County attorneys also used blown-up aerial photos in arguing that the underground fire is spreading and that allowing the pile to remain increases the risk of additional fires.
"We have new threats and new dangers out there, which we feel need to be dealt with," said Thomas Farley, an assistant county attorney.
Chief Banister said the department has done everything in its power to put out the fire, pumping thousands of gallons of water into the smoking "chimneys" on the site, bringing private experts to the site for their input and taking aerial photos with a sophisticated camera that pinpoints hot spots.
He said that the county considered retaining private contractors to bulldoze the site, but the $2 million cost is prohibitive.
"We still feel very strongly that we have an underground fire that is very close to unburnt surface material and the surface material should be removed," Chief Banister said.
But Chief Deputy James Judge, a 28-year firefighter, testified that it has become too dangerous to walk around on the site -- let alone bring in bulldozers.
He said that the fire has burned away underground debris, forming subterranean dirt-topped domes that could cave in at any time.
"You could walk across it and on the way back it could fall out from under you," he said. "Any shaking of it, any additional pressure, and there's no way of knowing how much, rainwater even, could cause the dome to collapse."
Mr. Jett also testified that he cannot afford to pay for cleanup -- saying the county has put him out of business.
"Just about everything I had I put into putting this fire out," he said. "There's nothing left."
He said he had investors lined up to help pay for some cleanup efforts in early September, but they backed out when County Executive Roger B. Hayden announced plans to buy the property Sept. 18.
"They said, look, on the one hand you're asking us for help to put the fire out. But on the other, the county is saying it wants to buy you out," Mr. Jett said.
Michael Tanczyn, Mr. Jett's attorney, argued that the site was unsafe even for firefighters. He presented an Oct. 10 citation issued to the county fire department by the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Administration for allowing firefighters on the site without protective gear and breathing apparatus.
"The point is that if Mr. Jett were to try to clean up that site, he would endanger himself and anyone else who was on those bulldozers," Mr. Tanczyn said.
He noted that since last February the county has been allowing the four acres to burn freely underground and have since done little to put the fire out. He added that despite such actions, county attorneys have argued that the site poses an immediate danger.