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The Clinton administration, which sometimes has been at odds with environmentalists, has moved to beef up its enforcement of environmental-protection laws.

Carol Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced last week that she will create a centralized Office of Enforcement within the agency. The office had been abolished in June 1981 by Reagan appointee Anne Gorsuch Burford, and its functions dispersed among many EPA offices.

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Environmentalists argue that Ms. Burford's move hampered the agency's pursuit of polluters. In many cases, they say, the same agency employees have been responsible for promulgating and enforcing environmental regulations. In other cases, different EPA divisions have sent conflicting signals to companies accused of violations.

By centralizing enforcement functions - which currently employ about 900 EPA workers - Ms. Browner hopes to launch a renewed assault on corporate polluters. "This is a clear signal," says Steve Hermann, EPA assistant administrator for enforcement. "We want to have a strong, tight program that goes quickly after the worst polluters."

Dan Weiss, political director of the Sierra Club in Washington, praises the centralization of the EPA "as a very good move" but says the key to the administration's environmental efforts lies at the Justice Department. The EPA, he points out, can only pressure companies to enter into voluntary cleanup agreements and fines. In order to pursue criminal or civil penalties, the EPA must seek assistance from the Justice Department.

The Justice Department's enforcement of those laws is now embroiled in controversy. Environmentalists have accused prosecutors during the past 12 years of not bringing enough environmental cases and of not seeking tough enough penalties against polluters. "We hope we get much tougher enforcement," Mr. Weiss says.

In response to those complaints, Attorney General Janet Reno has mounted an internal investigation of her department's environmental-crimes unit. Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, also has investigators digging through the Justice Department's files.

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