Rain, dirt help contain smoldering fire at dump County officials say the danger is over

June 11, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Clarification

An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun quoted a spokesman of the Maryland Department of the Environment as saying that smoke from a Clarksville dump fire has created an unhealthy situation. The department stated yesterday that the health effects of the fire cannot be determined unless information on the concentration of the pollutants and duration of people's exposure to them is professionally evaluated.

Pub Date: 6/12/98

Rain -- along with tons of dirt -- seems to have helped contain a fire at a controversial Clarksville dump that alarmed its neighbors as well as environmental and health officials this week.

Since Saturday, those living near the dump on Sheppard Lane off Route 108 have complained of a wood-burning smell coming from the 60-foot-high smoldering pile of dirt and debris on 70 acres of Alfred S. Bassler's farm.

But yesterday, Howard County fire officials said the fire is no longer a danger.

Bassler 70, said this week that he was dumping about 1,500 tons of dirt over the smoking gaps.

Sitting atop his 250-horsepower Terex bulldozer, Bassler said the fire was caused by hay that began burning underground after being mixed accidentally with truckloads of manure and stumps and packed into the dump.

"It's less smoke than if you were smoking a cigarette," Bassler said, as he stomped out smoking piles. "I just have to put a lid on it."

Bassler looked like an archaeologist examining artifacts as he sifted handfuls of dirt atop a rotting pile of debris.

"It's like a fire raging underwater," he said. "It makes heavy smoke because it is barely burning. There will be two little pieces of wood down there somewhere, laying together smoldering. Those will be the toughest to get out."

On Tuesday, state environmental officials issued nuisance and air quality complaints that could lead to civil and criminal charges against Bassler.

Such fires have proven to be stubborn problems. Beginning in 1992, a fire burned for 18 months in a stump dump at Patapsco Valley Farm in Baltimore County, costing the county about $3 million to control, according to Michael Caughlin of the Air Quality Control division of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

County health officials and state air quality experts said smoke from such fires could pose health risks for children, the elderly or those with asthma or heart conditions.

If you have incomplete combustion as at Bassler's, "you get organic wood being sent up in the air," said Caughlin. "It's an unhealthy situation."

For those who live nearby, the smoke has been a nuisance.

"It looked like a forest fire," said Robert Van Dyke. "You could see columns of smoke billowing up. Who wants to have that in your neighborhood? It could spread."

For more than a decade, Bassler has evaded attempts by county and state officials to close his dump.

Though his operation did receive County Council approval last year as part of Howard's solid-waste plan (the state gave approval three years ago for operation on an "experimental" level), Bassler does not have proper county zoning for the business.

Bassler says he is "providing a service the county does not."

"I have to be the villain and do what the county executive won't [provide] a place for all these stumps," Bassler said.

The dump began operations in 1976 when Bassler was trying to fill ravines with debris such as stumps and brush. As the development boom hit the county, Bassler said, contractors needed a place to dump yard waste.

His 430-acre farm seemed ideal. Now, about 25 trucks a day drop off 15 tons of stumps, limbs and brush.

Down a mile-long gravel road are more than 30 piles of stumps or "windrows," as Bassler calls the 15-foot-high piles of yard waste. Trucks dump the wood, creating a pile. When it rots in about seven years, it becomes top soil.

The top soil is then sold, primarily to landscapers, Bassler said.

Pub Date: 6/11/98

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