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Toxics regulators -- admitting that they lack laws and regulations to clean up the Niagara River and Lake Ontario -- may seek polluters' "voluntary cooperation."

The "pollution prevention" plan being discussed by officials of the United States, Canada, New York and Ontario, would seek to enlist the good will of such companies as Occidental Chemical Corp. and E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. to do more than required by environmental laws.

"We are considering adoption of a pollution-prevention plan whereby we would appeal to companies to be good corporate citizens and reduce their toxic discharges," said Charles Zafonte, head of the Niagara Frontier program office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Zafonte spoke this week during a meeting of the Niagara River Toxics Management Committee, which was scheduled to seek citizen views on improving toxic control.

He said one plan calls for persuading the largest dischargers of toxic wastes to reduce those discharges even more than required by law.

"We have an international agreement between the U.S. and Canada that calls for the virtual elimination of the discharge of persistent chemicals into the Great Lakes, but we don't have laws in either country to force compliance," he said.

"We don't want to hit them with a club, but we want to emphasize that being a good citizen is good public relations," he said.

Representatives of environmental groups suggested a mixture of a "soft approaches" emphasizing improved processes -- that also can save industry money -- backed by tax incentives "for good environmental behavior" and enforcement.

One tool involves publicizing government listings of the largest dischargers of toxic chemicals. Du Pont led the national list this year, and Bethlehem Steel Corp., Occidental and Eastman Kodak Co. are high on the state list.

The cooperation of the public will be important in getting the message to companies, Zafonte said.

But Charles C.M. Tebbutt of the Atlantic States Legal Foundation, an environmental group based in Syracuse, charged that companies have had more than enough time to comply with the law.

"I think it's time that people go back to their agencies and tell them it's time to start changing the laws or otherwise we will still be trying to get reductions years from now."

Tebbutt said a subcommittee of the Niagara River Toxics Management Committee is recommending that the list of chemicals scheduled for 50 percent reductions by 1996 be increased.

Environmental groups in New York State and Ontario expressed dismay a year ago when the Niagara River Coordinating Committee -- consisting of federal, state and provincial officials -- adopted a list of only 10 chemicals.

The original list included dioxin, Mirex, mercury and other persistent chemicals, but Tebbutt said the committee, on which he serves as a citizen member, would triple the number of chemicals scheduled for cuts by 1996.

Tebbutt said the master list of 92 chemicals in the Niagara River will be increased to more than 400 under the group's recommendation.

Both the increase in the number of chemicals and a pollution-prevention program will be discussed when the four governments meet this fall.

Paul Muldoon of the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy said calling for a 50 percent cut "sends the wrong signal to industry when the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement calls for virtual elimination."

"We don't want a technical fix that will meet the 50 percent," he said. "We want what is possible and ask that it be met."

Officials of Great Lakes United have said one of its top priorities during the coming year is a "zero discharge" program.

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