What a rotten hoax on everybody who was led to believe that the Chesapeake Bay was being rescued from poisoning and suffocation. In a devastating examination of environmental records, discharge permits and pollution abuses by factories, military bases and sewage plants, Post staff writer Victoria Churchville reports that laws are being circumvented and broken with shocking regularity. Worse still, her account shows that from July 1983 through June 1985, Maryland and Virginia officials rarely punished violators. Doesn't any responsible federal or state official care?

It has been 14 years since the federal government enacted a law aimed at stopping factory and sewage pollution of the country's waterways by 1985. But a study of permits issued to 124 major industrial companies and community sewage systems in Maryland and Virginia shows that every one has exceeded its legal levels of discharge. We're talking an estimated four trillion gallons of waste water pouring into the bay each year -- about one-fifth the total in the bay at any given time. Only 1 percent of the pollutants is flushing out to sea.

sk,3 Governors in four states and federal officials, such as William Ruckelshaus, former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, had taken the initiative to limit runoff from urban areas and farm fields, to ban the catching of rockfish and to make preservation of the bay a top political issue. But industries and sewage plants -- mostly left under other laws to police themselves -- kept dumping toxic pollutants. Under tons of paper work, officials in Baltimore and Richmond failed to detect gross violations of permits that were laxly drawn and granted in the first place.

sk The cumulative damage over the years cannot be repaired quickly, but this is clearly an emergency: Gov. Hughes of Maryland and his successor as well as Gov. Baliles of Virginia should step in forcefully. They must do much more than work to channel growth and curb overfishing in the bay's watershed. They have got to toughen permit standards and sanctions -- and police the polluters. Since late last summer, the two states' enforcement of the Clean Water Act has improved, according to reporter Churchville, but we're talking here about trying to reverse 20 years of deterioration. And if any rescue of the Chesapeake Bay is going to work, state legislators as well as enforcers will have to hear a loud public cry for action.