The piles of debris may have shrunk at the Granite stump dump, fire officials say, but they worry that where the stuff has been buried, it will provide fresh tinder for the fire that still smolders underground.
Comparing aerial photographs of the site taken over the past few months, Chief Roy Kimmer of the Baltimore County fire prevention office said, "The pile has diminished greatly from that, but what we're worried about is where it went after that." And if it simply has been moved and covered with dirt, he said, "what bothers me is the fire may get underneath that pile."
Kimmer and other top fire officials were testifying yesterday in a county Circuit Court hearing on whether the dump owner, James F. Jett, was violating a May 30 court order on how he could safely operate the dump while the fire continues to burn. Judge James T. Smith will resume the hearing tomorrow.
Ron Nelson, deputy secretary of the state Department of the Environment, attended the hearing briefly and said if Jett were found to be in violation, the state might help the county enforce the order. And if the county loses in court, he said, the state would consider intervening.
The fire at the stump dump in western Baltimore County has burned and belched smoke for miles around since Feb. 2. Later that month, after several failed attempts to extinguish it, the county decided to let the fire burn itself out.
The county since has tried to shut down the dump until Jett complies with all fire safety regulations. On May 30, Smith ordered that Jett limit the height of any new stump piles to 10 feet, maintain a 100-foot buffer between new piles and burning ones, grind to mulch and remove a pile considered to be a fire hazard and accept no more than 40 deliveries a day of new debris.
In yesterday's hearing, the county attempted to show that Jett was in contempt of that order.
Michael Kendall, an inspector with the county Division of Waste Management, said he found during visits in June and July that Jett was covering debris with dirt. The topography of the 126-acre site in the 8700 block of Dogwood Road changed with every inspection over the past three months, he said.
Deputy Fire Chief John F. O'Neill objected to Jett's unmonitored construction of a new "shelf" of debris covered in a ravine. O'Neill feared that if the covered section included any old and charred stumps, the fire could spread there.
He also testified to what he found at a new, smaller fire that broke out and was extinguished July 7 in a pile of debris that had been ground to wood chips. Because of the heat of the pile, O'Neill said, he believed it caught fire after being heated by a vein of the general fire that smolders underground.
Under cross-examination as to why he didn't order immediate removal if the pile posed a fire hazard, O'Neill said the pile was so huge it could take Jett as many as 200 working days to haul it away. And by then, the fire may be out anyway.
Before the hearing, about 50 people from communities in reach of the dump fire smoke carried placards outside, chanting, "Sick of being sick." They told how the smoke made their homes and yards unpleasant, possibly hazardous.