Cleansing the elements

A quiet bit of good news has crept out of Nova Scotia: The US and Canada have agreed to trim by 15 percent the phosphorus pollution in the Great Lakes. The agreement supplements the five-year-old Great Lakes Water Quality Pact between the two countries.

The new signing is particularly welcome at this time. For one thing, it shows the US remains committed to cleaning up the Great Lakes. Enormous progress toward ending its pollution has been made in the past 15 years, after decades of talk. But in recent months environmentalists have expressed concern as to whether the federal and state governments were still committed to continuing the cleanup. The pact just signed shows Washington's answer is affirmative. States abutting the Great Lakes are more likely to continue to do their part now that the Reagan administration has shown leadership.

The timing of the agreement is propitious for another reason. It reminds everyone involved in another thorny issue - acid rain - that reaching major international agreements often takes years, as in the case of the Great Lakes cleanup. In such instances, each nation first must reach its own consensus on problems and possible solutions; then comes a period of discussion to reach international approval. Still, the contrast between progress on the phosphate cleanup and a near-stall on acid rain should only quicken pressure for the latter's progress.

Concern has been expressed since early this century about pollution in the Great Lakes, but the major cleanup did not start until some 15 years ago. This was followed by stepped-up effort when the Clean Water Act was signed in 1972; in 1978 came the US-Canada accord.

All this should be remembered in the current thrashing about over acid rain, now properly of very major concern to the northeastern areas of Canada and the United States. Questions needing resolution include: what kind of cleanup action should be taken to achieve the greatest result with the least dislocation to others, such as coal miners; who should pay for it; and to what extent is US pollution responsible for acid rain in Canada?

In Washington, Environmental Protection Agency administrator William Ruckelshaus is having difficulty obtaining agreement within the Cabinet on what the US should do to curb acid rain; he notes the complexity of the issue. In Nova Scotia, he said he hoped but could not be certain that before next year's election President Reagan would decide what action the US should take.

That is a good deadline to aim for, provided research now going on in several areas yields wise answers to today's questions.

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