For years, the rumble of heavy trucks navigating narrow St. Stephens Road in rural Anne Arundel County has punctuated the country silence near the headwaters of the South River. The trucks have brought the debris of Washington construction, 25 miles to the west, the ash residue of a Baltimore Gas & Electric power plant, the gooey red remains from the sandblasting of ships on Curtis Bay.

Such material is both the ordinary rubble of a society that tears down to build up and the chemical wastes of industry. The common destination: a landfill that has operated largely without permits and with impunity.

Despite repeated efforts to close the dump, it has continued to accept the wretched refuse -- in one recent six-month period nearly 45,000 tons of hazardous wastes alone. Last week, the trucks were turned away by county police enforcing a zoning order, and opponents cheered when a circuit judge refused to hold the order in abeyance while appeals are pending. The jubilation is tempered if the dump's history is considered.

The Crownsville dump, owned by Louis A. Boehm and operated by Joseph Frank Joy Jr., offers a case study of government's inability to enforce its own laws and edicts.

"It seems that various governmental agencies, including ours, have been fooling with this thing for so long with no appreciable action," wrote Anne Arundel State's Attorney Warren B. Duckett Jr. in an internal memo last April. It was before he decided to press criminal charges, now pending, against the beefy, middle-aged landfill operator.

Consider the following:

Aware of illegal dumping of hazardous wastes at Crownsville, the state government did little but wring its bureaucratic hands for three years. And, when it acted in July 1979, it granted a one-year "interim permit" rather than stop it. Officials argued this was necessary to monitor and control the dumping they seemed unable to stop.

The permit was issued without the required public notice, an omission officials later defended as "inadvertent error."

Conditions included in the permit soon were violated, and the state, after a futile and short-lived effort to close the dump, extended the permit indefinitely. The operators have now asked that the dump be allowed to receive more poisonous types of waste than previously allowed under the interim permit.

Even as one state agency sought to close the dump, another agency helped keep it running, by buying excavation dirt from the site for road building. Another state agency granted the surface mining permit necessary for the operation, although the site lacked the required zoning.

The landfill operators were conditionally allowed to accept rubble only on an 18.8-acre portion of the 198-acre Crownsville site but, documents show, apparently disobeyed the May 1979 order by accepting material outside the allowed area and receiving hazardous wastes as well.

Although complaints of violations were to appropriate agencies, it has taken 18 months for a contempt case to reach the courts. The hearing, now scheduled for Nov. 24, concerns only the dumping of refuse outside the 18.8 acres.

All the while, the dump has operated without zoning approval from the county and without a rubble landfill permit from the state, which now says everything hinges on whether a recent zoning appeals board decision against Joy stands up in court.

Government files show disagreement within and between state and county agencies to what extent it constitutes a threat to health and safety. The internal debate has raged against a new national awareness of the dangers posed by disposal of chemicals. And while Anne Arundel politicians decry the fact that their county receives 85 percent of the state's hazardous wastes, Maryland officials say they must serve both industry and citizens and there are presently few alternatives.

"We in Maryland don't know what to do with the stuff, and we need industry," said Del. James Lighthizer (D-Anne Arundel), also an attorney aiding citizens opposing the landfill. "It all comes down to the fact the state waited too long to recognize it had a hazardous waste problem and now is stuck on what the hell to do with it. It's a classic example of how government doesn't serve people."

Meanwhile, the Mueller family, which lives next to the dump, hauls its drinking water in five-gallon plastic jugs from Bill Mueller's father's farm a few miles away. Last summer, for the first time, the Muellers stopped selling strawberries from their property for fear they are contaminated.

Across St. Stephens Church Road, Addie Baldwin complains, "our health and our life is being ruined. I have had problems with chest pains. My doctor tells me it is stress."

Frustrated and afraid for their health, the neighbors have banded together into a group they call EVOKE (Every Voice Opposed to Killing the Environment), had 1,500 bumper stickers produced, ferreted through government files, enlisted such supporters as the American Eagle Foundation and written letters to officials from the president on down in an effort to elicit some definite action.

That it has not come they blame on politics, and the experience has turned these flag-waving country people into hardened cynics.

"It's scary," said Pat Mueller. "This is the first time I've gone to government for help and I'm losing my ideals. We're fighting a stacked deck."

That governmental agencies persist -- no matter how limpid and futile their efforts by residents' standards -- is also blamed on politics, by 'boehm, a former county commmissioner who since 1975 has leased his property to Joy. Both Joy and Jerome F. Connell, Sr., a state senator and his attorney, refused to discuss the dump.

"I am a conservationist," asserted Boehm, 57, the other day as he was served with a county cease-and-desist order at his home adjoining the dump. "Our attorneys told us it [the county's latest zoning decision] would go against us because of the political atmosphere. I know nobody likes a landfill in his back door, but somebody's gotta take the bull by the horns."

Boehm, whose tobacco barn sits surrounded by mountains of dirt and a clay cell containing hazardous waste, grew up here in the rolling farm country a few miles west of Annapolis. He acquired the landfill property near his grandfather's farm in 1948.

He contends that dumping began on his property in 1949, three years before zoning was adopted by the county, and has continued unabated ever since. If this were so, under the county code, his rubble dump would be lawful. Residents and county officials maintain the dumping has not been continuous and dates from only 1969.

The state government first learned about the dumping of hazardous waste at the site in June 1976 when a competitor complained "we have already lost several customers to this site and the types of industrial wastes that these particular customers disposed of on our site certainly do not belong on a landfill that is not engineered or permitted to accept them."

Exactly how long the dump had been receiving the poisonous waste and what effect it has had on residents and the environment is in dispute.

On Nov. 15, 1976, two state officials encountered 200 55-gallon drums of industrial waste, and one of them noted a month later in a letter to another state department, "The base of this landfill is situated close to the Magothy Aquifer, which is a very important ground water-producing formation. This agency is particularly concerned with the possibility of contamination. . ."

The state succeeded in having the drums removed but not in preventing further deposits of toxic materials.

"I don't feel the designated hazardous substances have been adequately controlled at this site," an alarmed state official wrote in a December 1979 internal memorandum. "What particularly upsets me is that cease and desist orders [to accept the material only inside an approved clay-lined pit] were ignored and during that period we lost total control [of hazardous substances] at the site. Mr. Joy's performance . . . is not acceptable."

A hydrologist later hired by Joy who suggested that toxic waste could seep through the ground into a nearby stream and river, causinng contamination, was subsequently barred from the property. State testing last year appeared to show unhealthy levels of chromium, arsenic and lead in wells around the landfill. In June, the state said its methodology was mistaken and new tests showed no significant readings.

Tests on residents showed that at least two members of the Mueller family had high levels of chromium in their blood. Neighbors' fears were further heightened by a newspaper report -- later repudiated -- that a seemingly high number of residents had died of cancer.

"There is no need for the hysteria largely created by the press in the hazardous waste area," cautioned Gerald Winegrad, an environmentalist who represents the Annapolis area. Regardless, he said of the Crownsville dump, "If it's operating illegally, it should've been shut down. It's that simple."