"When I came to Birmingham in 1962," said Barry Robison, gesturing out the window toward 8th Avenue South, "you could see down to the second stoplight, but you couldn't see the third one."

Until the middle of this decade, the pall of air pollution hung over this city - probably the most industralized in the South - like a tarpaulin over a soggy infield.

As recently as 1974 or 1975, "It used to be you could in over the tops of the mountains (that border Birmingham to the south) and you couldn't see anything in the valley," said Paul Pate, director of Jefferson County's Bureau of Environment and Health. Right after the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, "We used to have air pollution alerts regularly," Pate said. "We haven't had one in over a year."

The marked turnabout in Birmingham's air quality - on a recent June day the sky was blue and there was little hint of noxious fumes - has come as federal, state and local governments have required hundreds of local industries to clean up their acts, so to speak, by putting pollution-catching equipment on their old facilities and building any new facilities with the "best available" technology to reduce pollution emissions.

Robison, who is Pate's deputy, estiamtes that Jefferson County industries regularly tossed 200,000 tons of soot into the air each year before the Clean Air Act was passed. Today the pollution count is less than one-quarter that much.

But the improvement has been costly, both to the industries themselves and to the consumer. The industries have been forced to divert dollars they would have preferred to spend on modernizing and upgrading their production facilities into devices and processes that collect dust, noxious gases and strain pollutants from the water. In return for purer air (and presumably better health), the consumer ends up seeing a larger price tag on a variety of items as industries pass along the higher costs of being cleaner.

Faced with a stubborn inflation that seems to be getting worse rather than better and American industries' lagging investment in new, more efficient facilities, some of President Carter's chief economic advisers are beginning to question the wisdom all the environmental regulations. They are saying that maybe the government should not mandate methods but merely set standards and let individual industries determine the most-cost-efficient method of meeting those standards.

As Barry Bosworth, director of the Council on Wage and Price Stability, said last week, environmental and health regulatory agencies have said for far too long that they cannot be concerned about the economic impact of their rulings. That just isn't true, Bosworth argued. In a world of limited resources, if the nation spends too many resources to eliminate cancer in one area, it has that many fewer resources to spend to eliminate cancer in another.

The Carter administration has set up a regulatory review task force, headed by Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Charles Schultze, to try to insure that all regulations - environmental and otherwise - seek to accomplish worthwhile goals in the most-effective manner. But Bosworth and presidential inflation counselor Robert Strauss assert that does not mean the administration is backing off on any environmental standards.

Environmentalists view the administration's new-found concern with the costs of regulations skeptically, however, and worry that the president will sacrifice the nation's air and water on an altar of inflation and investment.

Many businesses, especially steel, claim that they have cleaned up substantially and that from here on out pollution abatement expenditures get very expensive and the equipment required gets very exotic while further reductions in pollution are barely perceptible.

In Birmingham, as in the nation as a whole, no industry (save, perhaps, some coal-burning utlities) has contributed more to pollution problems than the steel industry and, as a result, no industry has spent more to clean itself up.

By the end of 1979, the steel industry will have invested $6 billion in pollution controls, according to a study prepared last month for the American Iron and Steel Institute by the Cammbridge, Mass., consulting firm of A.D. Little Inc. By the end of 1985, the industry will have to put another $3.8 billion into environmental controls, the Little report estimates.

But monies aren't spent by industries in the aggregate. They are spent by companies on specific projects in specific facilities to clean the air or water in specific communities. And at a steel mill in Birmingham, as elsewhere, the costs can be considerable.

Theodore Stevenson, the general superintendent of United States Steel Corp.'s giant Fairfield Works just outside Birmingham can vouch for the high price of cleaning up. So can U.S. Steel's accountants.

The accountants say the environmental regulations have cost United States Steel $60 million in investment at Birmingham alone since 1972, and a recent consent settlement with the county and the federal Environmental Protection Agency will require the nation's largest steel maker to invest another $32 million in pollution abatement equipment over the next year or so.

Stevenson reckons the costs more directly. The $92 million the corporation is required to spend on pollution equipment at Fairfield could have been a big down payment on the major improvements and expansion he needs in what steel men call the "finishing end" of the steel producing business.

A short, jovial 51-year-old who has been with the company 24 years, Stevenson says that the lack of adequate finishing and semifinishing capacity is costing him orders and, indirectly, costing Birmingham steel workers jobs.

"And that's not the whole of it," Stevenson adds. It is expensive to run the bag houses and precipitators and scrubbers and all the other antipollution processes at Fairfield. The Fairfield facility is an integrated steel mill that starts with raw materials such as iron ore and coal (which is baked into coke) that are turned into molten iron in a blast furnace. The molten iron is then refined into raw steel in a steel-making furnace and poured into ingots, cooled and processed further into sheets, strips and structurals before being sold to other industries who then turn the steel products into automobiles or bridges.

When U.S. Steel meets the terms of the consent decree it signed last March, the heaviest of its pollution investment will be over, according to Paul Traina, the regional enforcement director for EPA in Atlanta. Whenever it builds the new facilities that Stevenson wants, however, such as the sheet and strip facilities and a continuous caster that would eliminate the need to pour molten steel into ingots, U.S. Steel will face higher costs to put on the "best available" pollution technology, although these facilities pollute much less than iron-making blast furnaces, coke-making batteries or steel-making furnaces.

J. Robert Ferguson, executive vice president of U.S. Steel for engineering and research, is concerned about the high level of antipollution investment at Fairfield but is also quick to caution that U.S. Steel allocates its investment dollars on a companywide basis. The type of investment Stevenson says he needs would likely have been made here, Ferguson concedes.

But, he notes, it is possible that had U.S. Steel not had to spend any money since 1972 to meet the pollution requirements here, "Our priorities might have said those dollars would have been spent at another plant."

As it is, the corporation has made major steelmaking investments in the Fairfield Works, the third biggest plant in the company. And, mostly by choice, but also because these investments yield the biggest pollution payoff, U.S. Steel spent its money on the front end of the steel making process rather than the finishing end where Stevenson finds himself so cramped for capacity.

U.S. Steel could have done it differently. It had raw steel making furnaces - all of them of the old open hearth variety, a method of steel making that has been supplanted by the so-called basic oxygen process. Not only can basic oxygen furnaces turn out steel much faster than open hearths, they can do it more cleanly.

The red, dust-laden skies that characterized the areas around steel mills of yore were caused by emissions from open hearth furnaces. Ferguson noted that when the costs of bringing the open hearths into compliance with federal emission standards were calculated, it became clear that, for a slightly larger investment, the company could replace them with basic oxygen furnaces.

And the basic oxygen process furnaces at Fairfield represent a technological breakthrough (they are called Q-BOPs). Instead of lowering an oxygen lance from the top (which requires a tall building), U.S. Steel perfected a furnace in which the oxygen is blown in through the bottom. U.S. Steel was able to put the Q-BOPs in the same building that the old, low-slung open hearths occupied rather than having to build an expensive new edifice.

When the Q-BOPs are equipped with dust-catching hoods, they are not only more efficient than open hearths, they are cleaner.

It's just that now Stevenson can produce more steel than he can use most of the time. That means expensive new steel making furnaces often sit idle, which costs money. The company could have gone another route, spending, say, $150 million to expand its finishing facilities and made its less efficient open hearths conform to the pollution standards.

But because the open hearths would have had to be replaced shortly anyway (they date back to the 1920s and no steel company in the United States has built one since the 1950s), it would been an expensive and economically unwise choice.

U.S. Steel declines to give specific investment figures for any particular mill, but, using reasonably accurate industrywide costs, Ferguson estimates that U.S. Steel has invested about $475 million in new producing facilities in the last five years.

The three Q-BOPs (two opened in 1974, another this year after the settlement was reached) cost about $140 million. A new blast furnace (which will produce molten iron at a rate of 5,000 tons a day to feed the Q-BOPs) will open soon at a cost of $200 million. U.S. Steel will be able to shut down three smaller, dirtier blast furnaces as a result.

At an approximate cost of $150 a ton of annual capacity, the 900,000-ton coke furnace (which cooks metallurgical coal into a derivative that combines with iron ore and limestone to produce molten iron) cost about $135 million. It will open in August to feed the new blast furnace.

On the new coke battery, the controls that contain the dust when coke is pushed from a heating cell into a cooling car accounted for $14.5 million of the total $135 million investment.The three Q-BOPs have on them $27 million of pollution equipment such as dust-catching hoods and scrubbers to wash particles from gases leaving the furnaces (while an associated hot metal mixer that stores molten iron like a thermos bottle stores hot soup has another $12 million of dust-catching equipment).

Blast furnace pollution devices costs $6 million.

Stevenson estimates that pollution equipment costs 1.5 percent of the original investment to operate each year, adding $13 to $15 million a year to production costs, or nearly $4 to the cost of each ton of raw steel the company produces (if the plant is running full tilt; if it runs at 80 percent of capacity, the additional cost comes out closer to $5 a ton).

But the government-mandated investment has yielded some indisputable results. The Council on Economic Priorities calls the Fairfield Works the second most improved mill of the 22 it studied in 1972 and again in 1977.

The air around the Fairfield plant is much cleaner than it was six years ago. According to Jefferson County's sampling station about a mile from the facility, 127 micrograms of particulates dust) per cubic meter of air were being tossed into the atmosphere in 1972, probably almost all of it by the steel mill.

That had been reduced to 90 micrograms by 1974 and, after most of the open hearths were closed and the two Q-BOPs opened, it fell to 74 micrograms. The federal standard is 75.

Although U.S. Steel is substantially in compliance with federal regulations today - or at least will be when it finishes doing the things it promised to do in last March's consent decree - compliance comes only after some fairly stiff battles with county and federal authorities, and after a stiff fine from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

"Theyy're hard-nosed businessmen," noted Guy Tate, Roper's assistant. U.S. Steel fought in court, delayed closing some facilities as promised, and, in the eyes of the county and the EPA, operated out of compliance for three years.

But as Jefferson County environmental officer Pate noted, "There's not a Birmingham resident who's been here the last 10 to 15 years who doesn't notice the difference. There's no question there's been a tremendous improvement."

"It doesn't do to weigh economics against health," said Robison. "How do you measure longevity, the impairment of the ability to earn a living, the destruction of shrubbery, the deterioration of housing and the out-migration of people sick of living in pollution against economics."

A lot of industries, and an increasing number of government officials think the question has to be asked. "How we answer it, well that's another question," one top Carter economist conceded.