Washington — Environmentalists have been hammering away at the Reagan administration for some time, but now their attack has reached a level of rancor that is unusual even by Washington standards.
Petitions bearing more than 1 million signatures calling for the resignation of Interior Secretary James G. Watt are being presented today to leaders on Capitol Hill. Mr. Watt is also under threat of a contempt of Congress citation for refusing to release documents. The White House claims the documents are protected by executive privilege.
Environmental Protection Agency administrator Anne Gorsuch is under fire for persistent reports that she plans to cut the EPA budget by about half over the next two years. Such cuts, says Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairman Robert T. Stafford (R) of Vermont, ''Could amount to de facto repeal of some environmental laws.''
If this is true, as many Republicans as well as Democrats now fear, it would sharply contradict the general public's desire to uphold such laws.
According to internal EPA documents, the Reagan administration may cut the agency's budget some 20 percent next year. When added to the 24 percent already proposed in the first and second rounds of budget cutting (plus inflation), this could total more than 50 percent in reductions through 1983.
While refusing to speculate on future reductions, Mrs. Gorsuch told senators Oct. 15 that remaining EPA resources will be ''concentrated on programs producing the greatest environmental benefits.''
''The agency can and must fulfill its congressional mandate with reduced funding,'' she said. ''That will occur with better management.''
Critics are far from convinced. They note that important new programs - among them testing new chemicals and cleaning up toxic wastes - are just beginning. This concern is being expressed as it relates to administration plans to change the Clean Air Act.
According to a new Harris poll, 80 percent of Americans want the law kept strict or made even tougher. Americans may favor some government deregulation, he told a congressional subcommittee recently, but ''they will oppose vehemently any measure that might have the effect of reversing some of the environmental gains that have been made in the past 10 years.''
Pollster Harris finds that by a 65 to 32 percent majority, Americans oppose changes in environmental laws.
Aside from the cuts in federal funds for environmental protection (which now are being scrutinized by four congressional committees), there are other administration actions that many critics find troubling. Government grants for sewage treatment plant construction are to be reduced 50 percent. The administration plans to open up more federal lands to oil and mineral exploration. Several of its land-use policies are being challenged in court.
''I will err on the side of public use vs. preservation,'' Interior Secretary Watt has declared.
The number of enforcement cases sent to the Justice Department by the EPA has dropped sharply since the Reagan administration took over. EPA administrator Gorsuch says many of these cases ''do not merit prosecuting.'' Eliminating ''stale cases, cases without a clear goal, and premature cases'' is part of the ''better management'' Mrs. Gorsuch described in her recent Senate testimony.
The EPA administrator and Interior Secretary have borne the brunt of criticism regarding the administration's environmental policies. But there are as yet no indications that they don't have the President's full support.
Watt may have ''an excellent chance'' of being cited for contempt of Congress , as House energy oversight subcommittee chairman John D. Dingell (D) of Michigan puts it. But it was President Reagan who signed the letter withholding information on Canadian energy policies that some feel are hurting US business.