Alfred S. Bassler is used to waiting. Now he's got state environmental officials waiting with him.
Mr. Bassler has waited years for his billions of microbes to turn the stumps and branches on 30 acres on Sheppard Lane in Clarksville into valuable composted topsoil. He's waited even longer, he says, for state environmental officials to stop telling him do things their way: chip the wood, put it into piles and turn the piles over periodically. Anything else is just a stump dump.
After dogging Mr. Bassler for seven years about his unlicensed stump dump, the state Department of the Environment has agreed to let him demonstrate, legally, his method of recycling wood waste.
To do that, the regulators will wait with Mr. Bassler. Perhaps for six years, they're going to watch to see if Mr. Bassler's microbes are as good as he says they are.
Not that the microbes are a special breed. They're just working for someone who believes in them. Mr. Bassler believes they can break down the wood just as well as the diesel-burning chipping machines that the state allows.
CAll you have to do is give them time, he said. But state regulators had been reluctant to grant him time to prove his composting works.
"It wasn't in their book," Mr. Bassler said. "It can't get in their book until you show them."
Mr. Bassler said he started trying to fill in ravines with land-clearing debris such as stumps, limbs and brush in 1976.
"It rotted so fast we couldn't keep it full," he said. "We said, 'If it's going to rot so fast, we might as well screen it and get some topsoil.' "
So Mr. Bassler continued piling up wood. After it rotted for five or six years, he ran it across a mesh screen to allow compost to sift through. The topsoil is sold, primarily to landscapers, and the larger pieces of wood go back in a pile to continue rotting.
Although a boon to developers who had few other places to put stumps, the operation drew regular complaints from Mr. Bassler's neighbors because of the truck traffic and the danger of fire.
In 1988, the state wrote regulations for stump dumps requiring that they be licensed and that stumps be completely covered with earth -- something Mr. Bassler refused to do because it would keep air from getting to the wood and thus retard the composting process, he said.
The state has been after him ever since to license the operation. Instead, he has ignored the regulators or fought them in court.
State environmental officials are pleased to resolve the issue, but neither they nor county officials see Mr. Bassler as a benign figure who wants to help the environment. He has become so well-known for flouting regulations that a county government lawyer keeps a Bassler newspaper clipping on his office wall.
Even if Mr. Bassler works out a plan for the demonstration project by the end of this month as required, he still will have to meet county zoning regulations.
Joseph W. Rutter, director of the county Department of Planning Zoning, said Mr. Bassler needs a special zoning exception to operate the facility. Mr. Bassler recently met with with county planners to discuss filing a request for the exception.
It is likely to be fall before the request is heard by the county Board of Appeals, and it is all but guaranteed to bring out a host of complaining neighbors.
The wood-waste facility has been the scene of several fires, which Mr. Bassler said were ignited by the heat of decomposing grass clippings. The clippings were dumped by mistake, he said, and since then he has been more vigilant about such mistakes.
A 1989 fire burned at least a week and kindled fears that the site could become a problem like a Baltimore County stump dump that burned for 18 months.
M. Rosewin Sweeney, the assistant state attorney general who last year sued Mr. Bassler and his Basslers Inc. company for the state Department of the Environment, said Mr. Bassler's own statements and court documents repeatedly referred to his property as a "landfill" rather than a recycling facility.
The state allowed the demonstration project in part because independent experts on composting told them it was a good idea. One supporter is Dr. Frank Gouin, chairman of the University of Maryland Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture.
"When they called me up, I said, 'What he's doing is legitimate and he's doing a good job,' " Dr. Gouin said. "He takes a slow approach, a more natural approach" -- one that doesn't use as much energy as chipping wood and turning it.
Also, Dr. Gouin said, Mr. Bassler "manufactures a darn good topsoil. I've never heard anybody complain about his topsoil." While most topsoil is about 2 percent to 3 percent organic matter, Mr. Bassler's is 7 percent to 9 percent, he said.