Chicago — What's this? A Reagan appointee in the Environmental Protection Agency actually being singled out for honors by an environmental group? Though probably no one in the EPA these days could be classified as the darling of environmentalists, Valdas Adamkus, head of the agency's regional office here in Chicago, is fast emerging as the closest thing to it.
Some of his senior colleagues in Washington have been hit and felled by charges that they have done too little to protect the environment. But out here Mr. Adamkus was to be honored today for his long record of commitment to improving water quality in the Great Lakes. In giving the EPA's Region 5 chief its 1983 Rachel Carson Award, the Lake Michigan Federation singled out for special mention Adamkus's persistent efforts to clean up the toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in Waukegan Harbor on Lake Michigan. His reputation on water-quality issues, says federation spokesman Walter Mah, is ''impeccable.''
Though technically a Reagan appointee, Adamkus, who still speaks with the strong accent of his native Lithuania, has actually been with the EPA since the 1971 launching of its first regional office here embracing six Great Lakes states.
For many years, including those of the Carter administration, he was the deputy regional administrator. When the Reagan administration was debating between him and a Monsanto Chemical vice-president for the top post, the several Republican governors in the region, backed quietly by environmentalists, pushed hard for Adamkus as the choice.
''The very fact that he weathered all those political storms is a high tribute to his competence,'' observes William Rustem, executive director of the Center for the Great Lakes.
Adamkus is currently serving on the water-quality board of the International Joint Commission, the United States-Canadian treaty organization that oversees cleanup efforts on the Great Lakes. He has managed a consistent EPA regional stand, despite headquarters opposition, in favor of state bans against the use of phosphates in detergents.
''He's demonstrated that same willingness over the years to talk back to Washington,'' notes Lee Botts, former chairman of the Great Lakes Basin Commission. ''When he was first named administrator, I was full of dismay because I thought he'd be forced to compromise. He's a man who's very loyal to his staff and full of compassion - all heart. But, in watching what he's done since, my respect for him as a politician and a man of principle has been thoroughly reinforced.''
An example of Adamkus's particular brand of independence showed up on American television screens in March when he testified before a House subcommittee investigating the EPA. He accused then-acting EPA chief John Hernandez of showing the regional office's 1981 report on dioxin contamination in Michigan to Dow Chemical Company officials and, in effect, of allowing them to censor the report. Mr. Hernandez has since resigned.
''I was honestly amazed to see a middle-echelon Reagan appointee sticking his neck out like that,'' says an admiring James Yoho, an Illinois attorney who specializes in environmental matters. ''It was a courageous thing to do.''
''A regional office can't buck Washington too thoroughly, but we know from our sources that Adamkus has fought the good fight within the administration in terms of policy - he's a good, solid professional,'' says Dr. Robert Ginsberg of the Chicago-based Citizens for a Better Environment. Describing the Chicago EPA office as the most aggressive and independent of any of the regional offices, he also notes it has filed more enforcement cases than any other.
''He really deserves that award,'' says Charlotte Read, executive director of Save the Dunes and a board member of the Lake Michigan Federation. ''He's been what all environmentalists hope a government official will be - accessible and anxious to protect the environment.''
''There is widespread respect for his ability and commitment,'' agrees Gerald Paulson, president of the board of directors of the Illinois Environmental Council.
Though some environmentalists are cautious in their praise, such words as honesty, respect, and integrity continually surface in conversations about Adamkus.
This man who speaks five languages and has headed several US environmental delegations in international negotiations is no newcomer to awards. At the 1948 Olympics he won a Gold Medal for his athletic ability in the broad jump and in relay racing.
In addition, in 1978 he won the EPA's own highest award for his international efforts: the Gold Medal for Exceptional Service.