Officials knew of farmer's dump

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An Abingdon farmer has operated an unlicensed landfill on his property for at least four years with the full knowledge of local and state governments -- whose construction contractors were major users.

Highway and construction contractors for the State Highway Administration and Harford County began dumping at the 3-acre site in 1991, according to public records and interviews.

The two agencies have allowed their contractors to deposit thousands of truckloads of dirt, concrete, asphalt and other materials at Michael J. Kozub's 113-acre MJK Ranch south of Bel Air. At the same time, state and county officials have tried to regulate the dumping, and failed.

Trucks from state road construction projects on Route 7 in Abingdon and Route 22 in Churchville and from the construction of a water treatment plant on Abingdon Road built by Harford County have been among the dozens dumping there every week.

"I'm definitely concerned about what's going on," said Mitch Shank, a Harford County Council member whose district includes the farm.

Susan B. Heselton, another member of the council, said, "I'm just appalled that we have been a party to this. We have no idea at all what is being dumped there. We could have moved forward on this and prosecuted this a long time ago."

Harford officials said no county contractors have dumped at the farm since early last year, but dump trucks operated by contractors for the highway administration continued to roll into the farm last week.

SHA has no control over where its contractors dump, C. Robert Olsen, chief engineer for the highway administration, said.

On June 23, one day after The Sun requested documents from the county's file on Mr. Kozub's farm, Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann for the first time formally sought "enforcement assistance" from Jane Nishida, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), and other state and federal officials.

Some MDE officials have visited Mr. Kozub's farm in the past year. The agency plans to send a landfill inspector to the farm soon, said MDE spokesman George Krause.

At issue is whether Mr. Kozub's landfilling operation is exempt from regulation because it is related to his farming or whether he is defying regulation and actually filling the land to construct an airstrip -- as Harford officials contend and some county records support -- for which he has no zoning approval.

The dispute has been anything but polite. Mr. Kozub has complained of "constant harassment" and threatened legal action against one county inspector who alleged that Mr. Kozub was carrying a shotgun when he forced him to leave the farm. Mr. Kozub denied that charge.

In September, Harford officials ordered Mr. Kozub to stop the landfilling and obtain required grading and sediment- and erosion-control permits. But the order quickly was rescinded after Mr. Kozub's attorney threatened to fight the county in court.

Mrs. Rehrmann said her administration only recently sought help from state and federal agencies in regulating the landfill because of complaints by residents in the last two weeks. However, some residents said they complained about the landfill and truck traffic months ago.

Harford officials acknowledged they have been unwilling to challenge Mr. Kozub in court because they feared he might prevail, based on a provision of state law and a Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruling in a 1987 case involving a Howard County farmer.

Mr. Kozub and his attorney said an exemption to state law allows farmers to deposit some material, mainly dirt, on their land if the practice is directly related to growing crops or raising livestock.

But the Harford Soil Conservation District, an arm of the the U.S. Department of Agriculture that advises local and state agencies on soil erosion issues, officially has ruled that the exemption cited in the Howard case should not apply to Mr. Kozub.

"He wants to turn a gently rolling farm into a flat farm," said Gary A. Davis, manager of the Soil Conservation District.

An examination of documents and maps shows that the area being filled matches an area where, in 1990, Mr. Kozub unsuccessfully sought zoning approval for a 3,000-foot grass airstrip. He also does not have Federal Aviation Administration approval for an airstrip.

He said the landfilling operation is necessary to create pastureland and stop erosion.

"If it turns out to be level and applicable for an airstrip, that's to my advantage," Mr. Kozub said.

Mr. Kozub said he envisions running an air taxi service to Baltimore-Washington International Airport for executives and others doing business in Harford and surrounding counties.

In a four-page letter -- sent June 23 to Ms. Nishida and other MDE officials, the Army Corps of Engineers in Baltimore and the Soil Conservation District -- Deputy County Attorney Jefferson L. Blomquist said Harford lacks the power to stop the dumping "without a major and protracted legal battle."

In the letter, Mr. Blomquist asked the state if its contractors could be prevented from dumping at the Kozub farm, if MDE could cite Mr. Kozub for operating an illegal landfill or if Mr. Kozub could be forced to allow government oversight to prevent soil runoff into nearby Bynum Run, a state-designated trout stream that borders the dump.

Inspectors from the Harford Department of Public Works and MDE said they have not seen evidence of soil eroding from the dump and entering Bynum Run. They surveyed Bynum Run on Wednesday. But they fear erosion from the dump during heavy rainfall.

Erosion could clog the stream, a tributary of the Bush River, and kill aquatic life.

Landowners are required to obtain a state license to operate a landfill if, for example, lumber, plastic or metal is to be dumped on their property. All of those items were visible Thursday at Mr. Kozub's operation.

Mr. Kozub, 66, said he has no intention of causing environmental damage or harming his neighbors. He has about 30 head of cattle, grows feed for his livestock and operates a custom butcher shop on the farm. He also designed and markets an aluminum and steel crab and shellfish mallet, which he said he sells in gift shops in Maryland and around the country.

He has lived all his life on the farm, which his parents bought in 1925. "I'm doing my work to be beneficial to me, not to harm my neighbors."

He said he is saving the government money by providing a convenient dumping site for contractors. He said he plans to continue the landfilling operation well into next year.

Mr. Kozub said he has not charged haulers to dump there. But he acknowledged collecting about $1,000 from haulers to help pay his legal bills, and he said one hauler had agreed to resurface the gravel road into his property with asphalt in exchange for the right to dump there.

He said some of his neighbors are "Johnny-come-latelies . . . who think they own the country."

But many of his Abingdon neighbors are fed up with fighting landfills.

"I've got one rubble fill I'm fighting already. I don't want another one," said Nila Martin, who lives about a quarter-mile from Mr. Kozub's farm and the nearby Spencer landfill. She is a member of the Abingdon-Emmorton Community Planning Council, a group that advises the Rehrmann administration.

Mrs. Martin and other neighbors have complained about constant truck traffic into Mr. Kozub's farm. They said most trucks entering the farm are uncovered, a violation of state law.

Mrs. Martin said she was equally upset about the county's inaction. "Somebody's got to answer for this," she said. "Personally, I fault Eileen Rehrmann."

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