Environmentalists doubt US resolve to complete Great Lakes cleanup

Is the United States lagging on its commitment to help clean up the Great Lakes? Many US environmentalists and Canadian officials say they think US resolve to keep working toward that still-distant goal may be weakening.

The signs? For one, sharp funding cuts under the Reagan administration for much of the Great Lakes research and coordination work. And critics point to what they see as less than aggressive leadership by such responsible federal agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA is well aware of the criticism. In a recent oversight report on its Great Lakes program, the agency admits a need to restore its credibility in that area and dispel ''undeserved'' criticism that the US has been backing away from its Great Lakes cleanup obligations.

But of even greater concern to those who feel the US should be doing more to clean the lakes is the apparent waning of commitment by some states to reduce levels of phosphorus in the Great Lakes.

That nutrient, which flows into the lakes through human and animal waste, runoff from fertilized farmland, and household laundry detergents, was singled out in the US-Canadian water-quality agreement of 1972 as the major environmental threat facing the Great Lakes. Phosphorus contributes to the growth of algae, which hoards the oxygen supply of fish and speeds the lake aging process.

A 1978 US-Canadian agreement commits both countries to work for very specific , strict limits on the amount of phosphorus allowed into the lakes. Priority is being given to continued efforts to limit the phosphate content of detergents.

Yet last year Wisconsin opted not to renew a three-year restriction on phosphate in detergents sold there. And hearings were held recently on an Indiana Assembly bill to rescind a similar phosphate detergent ban in effect there since 1972. The bill has since been put on hold. Also of concern to environmentalists is Ohio's failure, despite annual legislative efforts, to pass a phosphate detergent ban.

Ontario, the only Canadian province bordering the Great Lakes, has limited the phosphate content of detergent since 1972. The Great Lakes states of Indiana , Michigan, Minnesota, and New York, as well as the cities of Chicago and Akron, Ohio, also limit phosphates used in detergents.

But the detergent industry, geared up for a fight in Wisconsin legislative hearings which began March 3, is raising fresh questions about the effectiveness of focusing on the detergent aspect of the cleanup.

Industry spokesmen are expected to stress that the average phosphate content of detergents has already been voluntarily reduced by more than 50 percent over the last decade and that the detergent contribution to lake phosphate levels is minor.

''For meaningful change you have to attack the problem from all points - we're not that big a factor,'' says Soap and Detergent Association vice-president Robert Singer. ''It's elitist legislation,'' adds association president Ted Brenner, who says that low-income families will be hit hard in having to pay more for hotter water, more detergent, and added wear on clothing that goes with the loss of phosphate.

The detergent industry argues that removing phosphorus in municipal treatment plants and stemming the runoff from farmland can have greater impact.

Certainly the billions of dollars spent over the last decade to upgrade sewage treatment facilities have helped reduce lake phosphorus levels. But most of the phosphate removal equipment has gone to larger cities. And federal money for these expensive projects has been drying up.

Stemming agricultural runoff is considered especially difficult because it involves a change in longstanding farming habits. But EPA chief Anne Burford recently reminded the governors of five Great Lakes states, in a lengthy letter, that further phosphorus reductions must be made. She urged them to look more closely at controlling agricultural sources.

Despite the added options, however, many environmentalists and sanitation engineers remain convinced that the detergent route to action is quickest, easiest, and cheapest.

Also, they insist, it gets results. The 1982 report of the water-quality board of the International Joint Commission, the US-Canadian treaty organization charged with monitoring progress in Great Lakes cleanup, says there has been a ''dramatic'' reduction in lake phosphate levels because of both detergent bans and sewage treatment improvements. The commission puts a priority on getting more detergent bans and keeping existing ones.

''If ever there were an environmental regulation that got good results, it's been the phosphate detergent ban,'' insists Lee Botts, former chairman of the federally funded and now defunct Great Lakes Basin Commission.

Sanitation officials in both Chicago and Akron say detergent bans there have sharply reduced the amount of phosphorous discharged from local plants and saved millions of dollars in otherwise necessary added treatment costs.

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