Stump dump's neighbors doing slow burn WEST COUNTY * Clarksville * Highland * Glenelg * Lisbon

May 20, 1993|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

The way Alfred S. Bassler sees it, if people would just sto having kids, he could close his stump dump in Clarksville.

But people are still having children, those children are growing up, and developers are ripping trees out of the ground to build homes for them.

So Mr. Bassler, 64, has for 17 years been charging developers to dump their worthless stumps on his farm, allowing them to decompose into topsoil. Slowly.

But a little too slowly for state regulators, and in the wrong place for more than a few of Mr. Bassler's neighbors, who have been upset by continual truck traffic on narrow and scenic Sheppard Lane.

Mr. Bassler has fought for a decade to keep his business operating, even to the point of obtaining a court order in 1988 that temporarily halted regulatory efforts.

He is waiting for word from the state on a new application for a new type of permit called a natural wood-waste recycling permit.

"Back as early as 1988, we informed him that he was not meeting the applicable regulatory standards," said John Goheen, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the


Regulation dates to 1988

It was in 1988 that stump dumps were first regulated by state law, and Mr. Bassler has been battling with Maryland and county authorities ever since. Earlier this year, state inspectors confirmed that Mr. Bassler's facility was still operating without a permit.

Lola Klein, who lives on the Richland Farm next to the Bassler property, and other neighbors said they are annoyed by truck traffic and would like to see some regulation on the site.

"We always remain concerned about what's being dumped, but we have no specific information about what's being dumped," Ms. Klein said. "We certainly have concern that it should be regulated and monitored."

Mr. Goheen said the regulations are aimed at preventing long-lasting fires, such as the one that burned for nearly two years at a stump dump in Granite in western Baltimore County. The rules should also prevent dumping of possibly hazardous substances and keep the dump from becoming a haven for rodents and insects, Mr. Goheen said.

Mr. Bassler has had three fires since November 1989, but is confident of his ability to extinguish them. He put out the first fire, which burned for at least a week, after ignoring authorities' instructions and dumping dirt on the smoldering mound of wood. Two fires since then were put out within a day of their discovery, he said.

Mr. Bassler also discounted the idea that other things might be dumped in among stumps and other organic materials.

"We've got a gate out there, and when we're not here, we've got the gate locked."

Mr. Bassler said he knows the accepted method of composting wood: chip it, pile it up and then turn it regularly to keep the decomposition process going.

But chippers belch diesel smoke, are hard to maintain and tending piles of chips is labor-intensive.

"Who's in a hurry? Let 'em rot. Let 'em decay," is one of Mr. Bassler's axioms. "If you can do it in 90 days, why not 90 months?

"The next generation is going to need this stuff more than this one, because even more of the earth's going to be devastated than it is now," he adds. "What can a person do for the earth anymore than recycle something that the county would otherwise call 'solid waste?' My theory is that it's solid, but it's not waste until somebody wastes it."

Some friendly voices

Miriam Mahowald, chairwoman of the county's Solid Waste Advisory Committee, agreed with Mr. Bassler.

"Other than truck traffic, I think he's doing a good service to the community," said Ms. Mahowald, who has visited the operation several times. "What he's doing is taking care of some materials that you don't want to landfill . . . and returning them back to a usable product."

County Councilman Charles C. Feaga also noted that Mr. Bassler is taking care of a problem that the county now has no facility to handle.

Even if Mr. Bassler obtains the state natural wood-waste recycling permit, he will still have to obtain a special exception from the county Board of Appeals to continue operating, said William O'Brien, county chief of zoning administration and enforcement.

The way Mr. Bassler's slow-composting system works is the wood is at first dumped into piles rising several stories, carefully blend in grass clippings, and periodically dig holes in the piles to allow oxygen in, and steam out.

Then, after five or more years, the decomposed wood is dug up, screened and mixed with different varieties of topsoil. The resulting product is about 10 percent composted wood, he says.

The operation was started in 1976, when a friend of Mr. Bassler's complained that the landfill on New Cut Road in Ellicott City, which was four years from closing, had stopped accepting stumps.

"I said, take them out on the farm and get rid of it," and soon others were showing up to leave their wood debris that was too knotty to be cut for firewood.

Now, Mr. Bassler has four stump areas on about 30 acres of his 430-acre property, which is also home to Hayes Field airport and a horse farm. The wood operation includes an aging fleet of four front-loaders and two bulldozers.

The business operates on the honor system, which means that customers who dump or pick up topsoil, firewood or mulch pull up to a mailbox with a clipboard inside. Customers record the amount of their transaction on a daily log, and are charged accordingly, Mr. Bassler said. Tipping fees range from $5 for a pickup truck load to $150 for a tractor-trailer load.

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