Maryland does a dismal job of monitoring water pollution and may be endangering the health of residents with outdated regulations that are only weakly enforced, according to a federal audit report that angry environmental groups are using as ammunition against the state this week.

"This confirms our suspicions about Maryland's water quality standards--they're incredibly lax," said James M. Stuhltrager, staff lawyer at the Eastern Environmental Law Center, at the Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Del.

Stuhltrager represents the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, one of several groups that have sued Maryland and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the state's water pollution regulations.

Although state and federal officials acknowledge much of the criticism in the report, written by the office of the inspector general for the EPA, they deny that the problems identified could jeopardize public health.

"I strongly disagree with that. There is no epidemic of illness, no evidence at all of any incremental rise in illness," said Richard Eskin, manager of the environmental health and risk assessment program for the Maryland Department of the Environment's technical and regulatory services administration.

Federal officials, slammed in the report for failing to hold Maryland accountable for missed deadlines and lackluster enforcement, said yesterday that they see no problem with their supervision.

"I think we have a really good relationship with Maryland. There are some things that need to be done, but they can't be done overnight," said Richard Kampf, associate director of communications for the EPA's Region III office in Philadelphia.

Part of the reason environmental advocates are smarting is that the report, finished in March, is not new--and yet it includes information the groups have been seeking for months as part of their litigation. The 30-page report even notes that "the agency risks being sued" because of the deficient standards.

The environmental groups' lawsuit, filed more than a year ago, is aimed at forcing the state to overhaul its water quality regulations. The suit presses Maryland to inventory lakes and streams and determine the "total maximum daily load" of pollutants they can handle. To bring high pollution levels down, the state then would have to ratchet up regulations on industry, agriculture and urban areas. Environmental groups in many states have gone to court to push for enforcement of this concept, outlined in the 25-year-old federal Clean Water Act.

Although the inspector general's audit also covers five other mid-Atlantic jurisdictions (Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia), the harshest criticism, by far, is directed at Maryland.

For instance, most of the region has, like Maryland, failed to adopt the stricter methods for assessing bacterial contamination that the EPA recommended in 1986. But Maryland has failed to even "implement its own criteria," the auditors observe.

Bacteria can cause illness, including sore throats, ear infections, diarrhea, gastroenteritis, meningitis and encephalitis. The two agencies in Maryland that monitor bacteria are doing so improperly, according to the report.

The state Department of Natural Resources, for instance, reported no water bodies impaired, even though other data the EPA obtained showed that 62 bodies of water had significantly high bacteria levels. The auditors said the Department of Natural Resources told them that it is too expensive to track down the source of bacterial contamination in all cases and that it only does so at permitted swimming beaches and for the shellfish program.

The Maryland Department of the Environment, meanwhile, does not routinely follow its own standard to take five samples from a water body over the course of a month, but instead takes far fewer samples, the report said. As a result, the auditors concluded, the department failed to place on its impaired list 185 water bodies which, other data showed, had high bacterial levels.

Eskin said he agrees that the EPA's methods of evaluating bacteria are better but has questioned whether they are too stringent. In any case, the Department of the Environment is developing regulations to phase in the EPA's 1986 recommendations.

Another criticism in the audit is that the state fails to establish criteria for toxic pollutants. Maryland requires companies discharging effluent into Maryland waters to test for 62 pollutants, and yet it has established maximum levels for only 20 of those toxics.

Eskin said the state applies the EPA levels in instances where there are no state standards. But toxics standards, along with the allowable levels of metals in the water--another problem the auditors cited--are going to be examined and possibly revised as part of the state's triennial review of its water pollution standards, he said.

That review, however, is one of the issues that drew harsh criticism from the auditors, who noted: "Maryland has not completed any Triennial Reviews since 1990, with no consequences from EPA."

Eskin said that some staff time was taken up with a lawsuit filed by industry over toxic pollution regulations, but that in general, "I really can't give a very good explanation" for the delay.

Will the EPA have to punish Maryland, as recommended by the inspector general, by withholding funds or stepping in to impose better standards?

"I sincerely believe they won't," Eskin said. "We are making reasonable and steady progress toward correcting these things."