A coalition of environmentalists, watermen, hunters, road workers and commissioners of three southern Maryland counties is challenging the state over the use of potent herbicides to control weeds along roadsides.

Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's county officials want the highway administration to stop spraying toxic weedkillers along roadways. The local officials cited potential environmental and health hazards in asking the state to stop spraying. Among chemicals that have been used or are being used are 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, both of which went into the controversial "Agent Orange" defoliant used in Vietnam.

The broadcast--spraying of herbicides to control poison ivy, Johnson grass and other "noxious weeds," as highway officials call them--leaves the roadsides looking as if they'd been "hit wit a blowtorch," said St. Mary's commissioner Dick Arnold.

Beyond esthetics, officials believe herbicide spraying kills small animals and birds in the woods, imperils plant and aquatic life in the fertile streams and rivers and, if a link to birth defects, tumors and spontaneous abortions can be confirmed, creates a potential threat to humans.

Last summer all three jurisdictions formally asked the state to stop all roadside spraying in their respective counties. The highway administration, which has turned increasingly to chemical weed control because it often is cheaper and more effective than older tactics of mowing and bush-hogging, has shown some reluctance to change.

Highway officials agreed to stop spraying county roads, where local jurisdictions have control, but vowed to continue using herbicides on state roads in the region.

Don Cober, a highway administration spokesman, said the state intends to keep spraying because "there's no justification to stop. If you stop it along the highway, you ought to stop it for farmers too."

Cober contends a tangle of weeds along a road is an unsightly and unhealthy mess. "I don't know anyone that would want to live next to a state highway saturated with poison ivy, do you?" he asked. "Why shouldn't the state take care of a noxious weed dangerous to the public and state employes?"

Cober said the costs of spraying are "in some instances less, in some more and sometimes the same" as mowing and bush-hogging and that all chemicals used are approved for the applications to which they are being put.

Not content with these explanations, the counties asked their legislators for help. Del. John Knight Parlett (D-St. Mary's) and Sen. Bernie Fowler (D-Calvert) said a legislative study committee will be formed at the end of the current session to determine whether new laws are needed to stop the state from spraying herbicides where they are not wanted.

"If there is evidence of potential danger, and I think there will be, I'd urge my committee to pass legislation," Fowler said.

"But I don't think it will go that far," added Fowler, who believes scientific evidence of potential harm will persuade highway officials to quit spraying.

Among chemicals currently used, according to Cober, are 2,4-D and Tordon. He said 2,4,5-T was used before it was banned for roadside spraying three years ago by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Both 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T are phenoxy herbicides that went into Agent Orange, the defoliant that has been blamed for a variety of health problems among Vietnam veterans. The EPA's Richard Montfort said 2,4,5-T was banned for roadsides because of "strong evidence" it causes birth defects in lab animals. There is also conflicting evidence about possible birth defects caused by 2,4-D and Picloram, an ingredient in Tordon, Montfort said.

"All these things should be applied very carefully because they can 'drift' to other areas," Montfort said.

The issue of potential human cancer from the chemicals was first brought to the attention of local officials by Erik Jansson, a lobbyist for Friends of the Earth, whose family farms in St. Mary's.

The opposition took firmer hold as comissioners heard complaints from watermen, county highway workers and the general public. The watermen expressed concern about declining water quality; representatives of highway workers worried their health was endangered by operating the sprayers, and local residents dismayed by the way defoliated roadsides look and by declining numbers of rabbits, quail and other small animals in the normally busy "edge" habitat along the road.

Willard Dutton, a lifelong waterman from Charles County, said, "They're spraying in the ditches, and that means it goes right into the creeks. You know the [aquatic] grasses in our creeks have disappeared."

Otis Carpenter, a retired highway worker, said, "The spray kills every bit of game. They say it won't, but I can walk behind them and pick up the dead ones." Carpenter said he complained to commissioners after the state "sprayed right in front of my house, right over my well."

Added Charles County Commissioner Loretta Nimmerrichter, "I'm a hunter, I get a buck every year, and I can tell you you find dead game all along the road: rabbits, quail and all kinds of birds."

The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees asked for help in determining whether the spraying was a health hazard to those who did it and whether workers operating the sprayers needed special protective gear.

Opponents of the spraying generally agree that the highway program is only a small part in a larger scenario of possible environmental degradation. Herbicides are used in far greater amounts by farmers in "no-till" farming. But, said Steve Bunker, Tri-County Council environmental scientist, "any use of herbicides that can be avoided should be. I'd like to see the state exploring alternatives. In farming, herbicides are a necessary evil; on highways there are options."

"We've thought long and hard about this," said St. Mary's commissioner Arnold. "The price is just too high--the continued degradation of the Potomac, Patuxent and Wicomico rivers; these things mean a lot to us.

"We're arguing over the fact that the state makes long, beautiful statements about cleaning up our rivers and bays but when it comes time to do something positive, they don't deliver.

"We don't think it's too much to ask them to just stop doing it. We've been told (by other sources) that this stuff is damn dangerous. Then the state says 2,4-D isn't poison. Don't tell me 2,4-D isn't poison."

Added Dutton, the waterman, "I wonder what these chemicals cost them against what it would cost them to hire a few of these guys drawing relief (to mow and cut the weeds). And it might make those men feel like they were doing something useful."