Slow burn in Granite

May 21, 1992

With all the needs in Baltimore County -- police, fire, schools, social services -- and the burden taxpayers feel, there's one line item in the county's proposed budget for next year that should prompt residents to sit up and take note:

"Granite Stump Dump Fire Suppression -- $1,600,000."

This is taxpayer money going up in smoke. And the county can't do a thing about it. In a decision last month, Circuit Court Judge James T. Smith Jr. ruled the county is as responsible for extinguishing the mountain of stumps and debris that have been smoldering in the tiny western Baltimore County village of Granite for 15 months as it would be for any resident's house fire. When the "stump dump" that James F. Jett runs at his Patapsco Valley Farms caught fire in 1991, acrid smoke wafted for miles. The situation isn't as bad now, but on damp days, a smoky smell is still pervasive.

Baltimore County is in the process of soliciting bids from excavators to dismantle this oversized mesquite grill. As the head of the Greater Patapsco Community Association put it, had the county devoted as much scrutiny to Mr. Jett's emerging landfill 11 years ago as it exhibited in its lengthy bid to contract for the excavation job, we might have avoided this costly problem.

The 26-page contract for the bid leaves no stump unturned, requiring, among other details, that workers wear sturdy gloves "that cover the wrist" and that they don't eat before washing their hands. The contract's main provision, however, is that the chosen firm will truck to the site a pre-fabricated incinerator or erect a temporary one there to cremate the stumps in a fire up to 2,000 degrees. It is estimated the contractor will have to dispose of 506,632 cubic yards of stumps -- enough to fill the main fish tank at the National Aquarium 300 times. Depressingly, $1.6 million isn't likely to complete the job, which may take up to two years, county officials say.

The county administration has found no solution for this mess. County Executive Roger B. Hayden raised eyebrows last September when he proposed that the county buy the dump and turn it into a park. (The Stump Dump Memorial Recreation and Convocation Center?) He's quietly backed off that idea. His administration now concludes there's no state or local money for a park. Mr. Jett has said previously that he had lined up investors to help pay for some cleanup efforts last fall, but they disappeared when the executive announced plans to buy or condemn the 35 acres.

The premature park proposal now appears to have been another misstep in the sorry saga of the stump dump. At least it should never be far from the minds of elected officials; if they need an example of how great can be the cost of ignoring residents' concerns and delaying action, the Granite stump dump is Exhibit A.

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