State officials have reached an agreement with an Anne Arundel County family to clean up Maryland's largest known tire dump, a decades-old stockpile of hundreds of thousands of tires rotting in ravines in Crownsville and threatening a waterway leading to the South River.
The $2.5 million cleanup will be the latest in a two-decades-old effort by the Maryland Department of the Environment that has resulted in the removal of 10.6 million tires from more than 900 sites around the state.
An Anne Arundel County judge signed off on a consent decree this week on the Crownsville site between the state, the South River Federation and the property owners, putting an end to a lawsuit brought by state regulators against the family that owns the wooded 200-acre property.
The Department of the Environment sued brothers Louis A. Boehm and Joseph T. Boehm, owners of the property, in 2012 to try to force them to clean up the tires or pay the state to clean them up. The lawsuit also sought fines for pollution violations that could have reached into the millions of dollars.
The property owners worked with the state over the years on a cleanup plan, according to the lawsuit. After discussions broke down in 2012, the state sued.
The state alleged the tires were dumped there over the years illegally, but the Boehms admitted no liability under the agreement, and won't pay any fines or penalties. The Boehms' attorney, Jeffrey W. Moore of Annapolis, declined to comment.
The cost of removing an estimated 200,000 tires will be paid from the state's scrap tire fund, established in 1992. The fund comes from an 80-cent fee on new tire sales.
Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment, said the agency was "pleased to have signed on to an agreement that allows the department to move forward with a cleanup to protect the environment and public health."
While there's no timetable for the project, Apperson said the agreement gives the state access to the property and starts a permitting process with Anne Arundel that will allow cleanup "as soon as possible."
As part of the agreement, the Boehms are required to apply for a conservation easement on 37 acres of their property, which would prohibit future development on the land.
And on another part of the property where there's a former landfill, they have agreed to limit future use, including not building any homes or tapping into the groundwater.
Environmentalists applauded the agreement. The South River Federation joined the lawsuit in 2013 out of concern about environmental contamination and the threat of fire from the tires, which sit in the river's headwaters.
"It's a tremendous step forward," said Lynn Buhl, interim executive director for the federation, a nonprofit advocacy group for the river.
Buhl said the federation will watch to make sure the cleanup is carried out as promised. The next step is for the state Board of Public Works to approve money from the scrap tire fund for the cleanup.
"I've seen enough consent decrees, you think you've got a settlement and it's all set. The settlement can sit on a shelf if someone doesn't keep pressure on it," said Buhl, previously an official in the Department of Natural Resources under former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Washington environmental attorney Larry Liebesman represented the South River Federation pro bono in the case. He called the tires a "ticking time bomb" because some of them are actually sitting in Bacon Ridge Branch, a tributary of the South River.
"Getting those tires out and getting it moving forward was clearly the No. 1 priority," Liebesman said.
The potential for fire at the site was a threat to public safety, said Division Chief Keith Swindle, a spokesman for the county Fire Department. In 2012, the department wrote to state officials with concerns about contaminated smoke and runoff in case of a fire, as well as about the manpower and cost of fighting it.
Swindle said because the dump is deep in the woods, it would take water tankers and foam units to fight a large fire there. They'd likely need help from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport's fire department or other agencies, he said.
"It would take resources not only for our department, but for outside agencies," he said.
For years, the Boehm property was the second-largest tire dump in Maryland, behind a 1.1 million-tire dump called the Garner property in Prince George's County. The state spent $10.5 million on that cleanup, completed in 2012.
According to the Department of the Environment, about 5.6 million scrap tires are discarded in Maryland every year, and they pose dangers if they are not disposed of correctly, including serving as breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which can spread disease, and creating an environmental hazard.