The state of Maryland's opposition to the dumping of sludge in the Atlantic near Ocean City has gained some support from a U.S. appeals court.

The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond has directed U.S. District Court Judge Gerhard A. Gesell to order the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a "full inquiry" into whether the location "should be designated as a dumping site by anyone for any purpose."

In February, Gesell upheld the dumping of sludge from Camden, N.J., at the so-called Cape May site, which is about 50 miles off the Maryland-Delaware coastal border. Camden since has switched to a site 106 miles off the Jersey coast.

However, the city of Philadelphia still dumps about 50,000 tons of sludge at the site each month, and it is that permit - up for renewal next month - that Maryland hopes to block.

In partially reversing Gesell's order, the three-judge panel "recognized that EPA itself has turned around" on the issue by subsequently ordering Camden to dump at the New Jersey site, according to Edward M. Norton of the Maryland attorney general's office.

A lawyer at the EPA said yesterday her office had not yet received a copy of the court order, which was handed down last Friday.

Norton said Maryland opposes any dumping at the Cape May site "because of the known adverse effect on commercially important marine life" in that area of the Atlantic Ocean. He said the latest studies of the area "look bad. There is real evidence of sludge buildup" that threaten both shell and fin fish.

"If there must be ocean dumping at all," Norton said "it should be beyond the Continental Shelf." The new location for dumping Camden's sludge, named Site 106 because it is 106 miles from a marker in New York harbor, is beyond the shelf.

Maryland has argued that Philadelphia has "reasonable land-based sites" for disposing of its sludge by composting.