Waterfront developer gets cleanup order State, federal officials exert pressure as mud pollutes coastal bay

September 14, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- Federal and state regulators yesterday ordered the developer of a waterfront golf course to take immediate action to correct harm that his project has been causing to one of Maryland's fragile coastal bays.

Tom Ruark of Salisbury, who is building an 18-hole golf course and nine homes on a 372-acre former farm south of Maryland's ocean resort, agreed to begin work starting today. Mud has been washing into Sinepuxent Bay since his workers bulldozed 2,450 feet of shoreline a few weeks ago.

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who represents the Eastern Shore, visited the site yesterday to see the damage and meet with Ruark and federal and state inspectors.

Gilchrest said after the meeting that he was satisfied that Ruark would halt the mud pollution, but the legislator expressed concern that construction had been allowed to proceed as the erosion escalated out of control.

"If they [the developer] had put forth a little effort, he could have done it right the first time," Gilchrest said.

Ruark, who barred a reporter and environmentalists from the property, declined requests for an interview.

Gilchrest said he asked to visit the construction site, on the former Woodcock Farm, after hearing complaints about shoreline disturbance and erosion. The mud pollution threatens to smother offshore underwater grasses that are vital nursery grounds for fish and crabs.

The complaints came from local environmentalists, as well as from the National Park Service, which runs Assateague National Seashore across the bay from the golf course, which is to open next April and be named Rum Pointe.

"This is just one blatant example," said Frank Gunion, an Ocean City retailer and activist. "Every [construction] site we look at there are violations."

An official with the Maryland Department of the Environment said the state planned no enforcement action against Ruark for the erosion, despite citing him earlier for beginning construction before getting all the necessary regulatory approvals.

The citation carries no monetary or other penalty.

Dane Bauer, deputy water management director, said that Ruark had received federal and state approval last month to attempt to control shoreline erosion at his new waterfront golf course by creating a tidal marsh.

But the effort went awry -- mud began washing into the bay after the vegetation was removed.

Bauer said that Ruark had attempted to control the mud pollution by installing plastic "silt fences" in shallow water along the shoreline, and by putting down sod to cover the bare soil. Neither has proven effective, and he has been directed to install a berm of sand along the water's edge, and to replace the "silt fences" with a stronger barrier similar to those used to control oil spills.

"He was doing everything he was asked to do," Bauer said.

But Alex Dolgos, a wetlands enforcement official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who visited the site yesterday, said otherwise. Ruark had been given permission to alter the shoreline, Dolgos said, but the developer was not in compliance with his federal permit because he had failed to adequately protect the underwater bay grasses while doing the work.

Dolgos said he did not cite Ruark, either, but plans to revisit the site soon to see that appropriate action is taken.

Federal and state inspectors have gone to the project several times in the past three weeks, seeking effective action to halt the mud pollution.

After leaving the site, Gilchrest met with local environmentalists at the Assateague Seashore park headquarters. They complained of lax enforcement by state officials and described other development problems in Ocean City and on the Worcester County mainland bordering the coastal bays.

Activists presented Gilchrest with a list of four construction projects where they said "rivers of mud" had flowed down the streets after heavy rains Thursday. And they cited nine home-building sites in Ocean Pines, a housing project bordering Isle of Wight Bay, where they believed there had been violations of state and federal regulations designed to protect wetlands.

Gilchrest said he has become concerned about state enforcement of environmental laws, especially those protecting wetlands, after a report in The Sun last month described declines in citations issued and penalties levied by the environment department. In the past year, for example, there was a 90 percent decline in citations issued for wetlands violations.

The congressmen said he intended to press his concerns with state officials. "It's unfortunate that that kind of pressure is necessary," Gilchrest said.

State officials insist that they are taking prompt, effective action to ensure compliance with environmental laws. Penalties have declined because inspectors only levy them against repeat or egregious violations, they say.

"You work with these people first," said Bauer. "By cooperating, we're getting more done."

State Environment Secretary Jane T. Nishida has agreed to meet soon with Ocean City area environmentalists to explain her agency's enforcement of wetlands and erosion laws, said Erin Fitzsimmons, a lawyer representing area activists.

Sinepuxent is one of five coastal bays recently targeted for protection under a joint federal, state and local pact after a federal study found the delicate waterways were as degraded as the Chesapeake Bay.

Pub Date: 9/14/96

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