Environmentalists are warning that the latest round of state budget cuts will weaken protection of Maryland's streams from mud pollution and undermine the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort.
Nearly a quarter of the 21 employees to be laid off Dec. 1 by the state Department of the Environment work on controlling runoff of mud and storm water from construction sites, which are major sources of water pollution.
The workers are among 481 state employees who will lose their jobs as a result of the state budget cuts approved last week.
Mud pollution from construction sites is a leading cause of stream degradation. Some mud in a river or stream is natural, but too much can kill underwater plants and bury fish spawning areas and shellfish beds.
"A typical construction site can damage up to three miles of stream if there's no control, and it can take a century for a stream to recover," said Richard Klein, a private environmental consultant. "Of all the programs to cut, this should be the last one."
The state's remaining 400 miles of trout streams are particularly vulnerable to siltation because the freshwater fish prized by anglers need gravelly bottoms on which to lay their eggs.
"It's the wrong example for an administration that's supposed to be committed to restoring the bay," said James Gracie, a private environmental consultant and a member of Trout Unlimited, a fishermen's group.
Environmentalists contend the cuts in sediment and erosion con
trol conflict with the latest direction taken by the bay cleanup. Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the governors of Pennsylvania and Virginia pledged in August to expand efforts to restore the bay to include the rivers and streams that feed into the estuary.
Critics say the mud-control reduction, though small when compared with overall slashes in state spending, is but one of many small cuts in environmental programs over the months that threaten the quality of Maryland's water and air.
"The whole integrity of our environmental laws is being compromised by not having enough money to enforce them," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, Maryland director of Clean Water Action. "This is very short-sighted."
Environment Secretary Robert Perciasepe contends enforcement will not be weakened by the layoffs. The department has been reorganized to pool inspectors from several pollution control programs, he said, and a new section has been set up to focus on curbing runoff from development.
"We're moving more strongly into a regulatory mode," he said. "But there's a limit to how many developers' [hands] we can hold."
However, environmentalists question whether fewer people can keep up enforcement overall.
State law requires developers to keep soil from washing into streams by erecting porous plastic "silt fences" around construction projects. They also must dig ponds or install structures to collect muddy rainwater before it can run off the site.
Inspectors checked 12,300 construction sites last year, up 2,000 from the year before, and levied a record $372,000 in penalties.
Even before last week's layoffs, the state was not checking sites every two weeks, as required by its own regulations, noted Barbara Taylor, executive director of Maryland Save Our Streams, a grass-roots environmental group.
Frequent inspections are needed because silt fences and ponds, even if properly installed, can be overwhelmed by heavy rains or accidentally destroyed by construction equipment.
County governments inspect most construction sites in the Baltimore and Washington areas, while state inspectors oversee rural counties and state highway projects.
Mr. Perciasepe insisted that various spending cuts will not undermine bay restoration, and he said his department suffered smaller spending cuts this time than others. The Agriculture Department lost $2 million, he noted, while he had to cut only $1.2 million.