Declaring that the Environmental Protection Agency "must be pushed to work harder," a federal court here yesterday denied the agency's request to be released from a five-year agreement establishing the nation's major water cleanup program.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas A. Flannery said that EPA "presented insufficient justification for revising the consent decree in these cases."

Under the consent decree between the agency, the Natural Resources Defense Council and industries, EPA must develop guidelines for controlling pollutants and effluents from 23 major industries. The deadline for the rules varies depending on the industry; EPA had asked for extensions ranging from 10 to 29 months.

The agreement also had required EPA to set water quality criteria for each pollutant, to identify bodies of water so polluted that they might require additional treatment, identify which of the 65 regulated pollutants might require more stringent controls and identify additional pollutants that should be controlled.

The court ordered EPA to present a schedule for effluent standards by June 21, to issue final regulations for all proposed rules within 180 days, and to propose all remaining rules within 180 days and publish them in final form by a year from now.

Steven Schatzow, EPA's director of water regulations and standards, called the schedule "very tight. It's hard to put a well-reasoned regulation out in that short amount of time." Schatzow said EPA will appeal the ruling.

James T. Banks, the attorney for the NRDC, said, "We're pleased at the outcome and encouraged."

Schatzow said EPA had run into technology problems with the effluent guidelines. "We wanted to complete them. We just needed more time."

EPA found the other requirements for identifying additional pollutants and seriously polluted bodies of water "too restrictive. We wanted more administrative discretion," Schatzow said.

Although Schatzow said budget cuts had "little impact" on EPA's request for more time, court documents filed last July noted that the program was the largest portion of the EPA's water pollution office budget. When the consent decree was signed in 1976, it ended three years of litigation and four lawsuits charging EPA with failure to carry out the Clean Water Act.

EPA noted that while it was required by law to regulate the 65 major pollutants, it was not required by law to perform the additional duties. But the NRDC argued that environmental groups had made concessions--in the number of regulated industries, for example--to get EPA to promise to identify future water pollution problems.

In quoting from another court decision, Flannery said, "At this time the court hopes this order will 'serve like adrenalin, to heighten the response and to stimulate the fullest use of resources' at EPA; if this results in overstimulation of the agency," then action can be taken by the court at a later time.