OCEAN CITY -- Ralph Giove says he used to catch a dozen crabs in every pot he put out near his home on the western shore of Isle of Wight Bay.
But, in the past couple of years, says Giove, his catch has dwindled by half. His crab pots get clogged with mud and silt carried into the shallow coastal bay by a nearby stream.
"Sometimes it gets so heavy you can't lift the pot out of the water," says Giove, a retired Coca-Cola worker who moved here from the Washington suburbs four years ago.
Not far upstream from where Giove crabs, a drainage ditch dumps muddy water into the creek from a former farm field where houses are sprouting now. The new development is called Oyster Harbor.
"How can anything live in this?" Giove asks.
Muddy water may not seem that bad, but it can do as much damage to a waterway as an oil spill. Some mud in a river or stream is natural and even necessary, but too much can kill off underwater plants and smother shellfish beds and fish spawning areas.
Environmentalists in Worcester County complain that the state's fragile coastal bays near Ocean City are being damaged by mud pollution from vacation- and retirement-home construction projects such as Oyster Harbor. They charge that the Maryland Department of the Environment has been lax in enforcing the state law requiring builders to control soil erosion and sediment loss from construction sites.
A survey in January by the county's soil conservation office found 19 construction projects from Ocean City south to Pocomoke City where controls were poor or nonexistent.
"With this kind of sediment control, we will never have productive coastal bays," says Ilia Fehrer, president of the Worcester Environmental Trust.
State environmental officials deny they have neglected construction-related pollution in Worcester. Nearly 500 inspections have been conducted in the county in the past year and fines totaling $80,000 have been levied against builders for violations, says Vincent H. Berg, director of MDE's sediment and stormwater administration.
"If they only have 19 violations in Worcester County, I'd say that's pretty good," Berg says.
But county officials have asked state officials to brief them on their inspection program.
"I don't see a lot of evidence that anything's been checked," said Jeanne Lynch, a Worcester County commissioner. "So much of our development is right on the waterfront that the need for sediment control is urgent. It's a crime, and it's so unnecessary."
The situation in Worcester County is not unique, say environmentalists. A survey last summer of construction sites in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania concluded that Chesapeake Bay and the streams that feed into it also are suffering from mud pollution because of weaknesses in state and local efforts.
Richard D. Klein, an environmental consultant, says that 68 of 90 developments he inspected, or 71 percent, lacked effective controls on soil erosion and sediment runoff.
Maryland construction projects had the best mud-pollution curbs far of the three bay states, Klein says. Fifteen of 33 building sites checked in the Baltimore and Washington suburbs and in Southern Maryland passed muster, more than twice the rate in the other states.
Klein says more study is needed to determine if Maryland really ** is that much better at controlling mud pollution. But even so, he notes, more than half the Maryland construction sites he checked lacked good erosion controls.
County governments inspect construction projects in the Baltimore and Washington areas, while the state checks on development in mostly rural counties on the Eastern Shore and in Western and Southern Maryland. The state environment department also inspects state highway projects and other publicly funded construction statewide.
Berg, the state's chief of sediment and stormwater control, contends that the state and most counties are generally doing a good job of policing mud pollution.
"If you drive down the road and pick out a project, you're probably going to find a few problems out there," Berg says. But he says that 63 percent of the construction sites his staff inspects are in full compliance with the law.
"They're doing a better job than they were five or 10 years ago," agrees Barbara Taylor, executive director of Maryland Save Our Streams, a nonprofit group that organizes citizen volunteers.
State and local officials have begun handing out stiffer fines for violations, and taking flagrant mud pollution cases to court. The state even won unusual criminal convictions against a builder in Southern Maryland last year.
But enforcement is still uneven, say environmentalists. While the state collected a record $157,000 in penalties last year for sediment and erosion violations, it has been reluctant to shut down a construction project until problems are corrected. MDE has issued only six stop-work orders in the past eight months, compared with 400 to 500 a year issued each by Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Prince George's counties.
Berg acknowledges that shutting a project down forces a builder to fix problems, but he says the state has been able to get results simply by threatening to stop work.
Improvement has slow, however, at the problem construction projects identified in January in Worcester County. Five of the 19 sites listed by the soil conservation office were checked last week by The Evening Sun, and they still were in violation, six weeks after the list was provided to the state.
At one waterfront housing project called Nantucket Point, for instance, ribbons of black silt fence intended to prevent erosion lay buried under deltas of sand that had been washed into Assawoman Bay. Gullies had been washed out under other sections of poorly anchored fencing.
Environmentalists say there still are not enough inspectors to keep up with the pace of construction statewide, despite an increase to 131 from 49 state and local inspectors since 1984.
Only about half the 2,000 construction projects overseen by the state, for instance, are inspected every two weeks, as required by state regulations. Frequent inspections are needed because sediment and erosion controls require constant maintenance, and one storm can wash tons of mud into a stream.
But state inspectors actually performed fewer inspections lasyear -- 10,300, down 34 percent from 15,600 site visits five years ago.
Environmentalists also contend that the state requirements for controlling sediment loss and erosion are not stringent enough.
State law requires developers to keep soil from washing into streams by putting porous plastic "silt fences," or straw-bale dikes, around their projects. They also must dig "traps" or ponds to collect muddy rainwater and settle the dirt out before it can drain off-site.
But a study last year by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments found that such measures removed only 46 to 65 percent of the sediment running off construction sites during rainstorms.
Meanwhile, in Worcester County, state inspectors are making the rounds of the 19 construction sites that stirred the controversy.
"There's more activity in the last week than we've had in the last four years," said Bruce Nichols, the soil conservationist who did the list.
As for Oyster Harbor, the development plaguing Ralph Giove, state officials say they have tried to curb the muddy runoff from the site. But many of the problems there should have been caught before the builder broke ground, they say, and the county soil conservation office is responsible for reviewing developers' plans for sediment control.
Giove says he's heard all that, but the mud keeps coming.
"I'm sure whatever's been done wasn't done on purpose," he said. "But the point is, something's wrong and nobody can take care of it."
How to report erosion problems To report sediment or erosion problems in the Baltimore area, call:
Anne Arundel: 222-7777
Baltimore County: 887-3226
If problems are outside the metro area, or involve government construction projects, call:
Maryland Department of the Environment: 631-3510 (Baltimore area)
1-800-922-8017 (toll-free statewide)
, 974-3181 (nights/weekends)