RITA LAVELLE says she might write a book about her EPA "Sewergate" nightmare--but only if it can be titled "Confessions of the National Garbage Lady."

Washington has left her with her sense of humor. She leaves Washington with little else.

Lavelle, 35, was raised in the sort of large Irish Catholic family where if you do everything right--church, athletics, clean living--it all turns out okay in the end. She went to the College of Holy Names, then got a master's in business administration from Pepperdine University in California. Her father was a doctor, her mother, a nurse. She helped bring up her seven younger siblings in affluent Pasadena, down the street from the Rose Bowl. Last year the family won $10,000 on the game show "Family Feud."

Eleven months ago she moved away from her family for the first time in her life to become assistant administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency at a salary of $67,000 a year. A prestigious job, by any standards. She says she worked 14 hours a day and tried to do everything right.

In what has turned into the biggest political spectacle of this administration, President Reagan publicly fired Lavelle last month, making her and the EPA the talk of the nation. This week it looks as if her boss, EPA Administrator Anne Burford, may be following her out the door.

Lavelle is being investigated by at least six congressional committees, and allegations about her on-the-job conduct have been referred to the Justice Department. Questions have been raised about possible conflict of interest and perjury. She has denied it all, and no charges have been brought. Her 9-year-old nephew in California gets a kick out of watching Aunt Rita on the news. And her 25-year-old brother, Tommy, phones her weekly and calls her "jailbait." But her conservative parents are not amused. "It's been real hard on them," Lavelle says.

As director of the $1.6 billion toxic waste cleanup "Superfund," Lavelle has been questioned about allowing herself to be entertained at fancy restaurants by industry executives, and asked if she gave certain companies "sweetheart" deals. She has replied that she only discussed broad policy matters and not specific cases at those dinners, and, furthermore, that no "sweetheart" deals were made. And she says the only gifts she ever received were a pen and a "trash can belt buckle."

Lois Gibbs, the Love Canal housewife-turned-crusader, has picketed in front of Lavelle's Crystal City apartment building. Lavelle is convinced her phone is tapped. People stare at her in restaurants, subways, elevators. Her butcher wanted to know if she was "that EPA woman."

He told her to "give 'em hell."

"I'm still in a state of shock . . . I've never been fired from a job before," Lavelle says.

She struts into her lawyers' office and heads right for The New York Times on the end table to read yet another story about herself.

"This one's not too bad," she says with a wry smile. Her spirits appear high and she laughs a lot during the two-hour interview at the downtown law offices of Bierbower & Bierbower.

Her tone is controlled and her words measured while she chronicles the last month's horrors. She is 35 but looks older, especially in her business clothes, the K Street conservative look. Her face is pudgy, her mouth and eyes always sad--even when she is insisting she's right.

Where the blame belongs is perfectly clear to her: to coworkers, to envious onlookers, to stodgy bureaucrats, to Washington. But never to herself. Except when she says she was "naive."

"Let's face it. I was pushing for results and I was making a lot of changes," she says. "Some people can't take change whether you're a government worker or if it's in your own personal life . . . I think I might have been a little ahead of my time.

"Some say my sense of mission was strong. I was given a mission and Rita Lavelle, Dumped Swept Out of EPA, The 'Garbage Lady' Keeps Her Chin Up By Lois Romano

RITA LAVELLE says she might write a book about her EPA "Sewergate" nightmare--but only if it can be titled "Confessions of the National Garbage Lady."

Washington has left her with her sense of humor. She leaves Washington with little else.

Lavelle, 35, was raised in the sort of large Irish Catholic family where if you do everything right--church, athletics, clean living--it all turns out okay in the end. She went to the College of Holy Names, then got a master's in business administration from Pepperdine University in California. Her father was a doctor, her mother, a nurse. She helped bring up her seven younger siblings in affluent Pasadena, down the street from the Rose Bowl. Last year the family won $10,000 on the game show "Family Feud."

Eleven months ago she moved away from her family for the first time in her life to become assistant administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency at a salary of $67,000 a year. A prestigious job, by any standards. She says she worked 14 hours a day and tried to do everything right.

In what has turned into the biggest political spectacle of this administration, President Reagan publicly fired Lavelle last month, making her and the EPA the talk of the nation. This week it looks as if her boss, EPA Administrator Anne Burford, may be following her out the door.

Lavelle is being investigated by at least six congressional committees, and allegations about her on-the-job conduct have been referred to the Justice Department. Questions have been raised about possible conflict of interest and perjury. She has denied it all, and no charges have been brought. Her 9-year-old nephew in California gets a kick out of watching Aunt Rita on the news. And her 25-year-old brother, Tommy, phones her weekly and calls her "jailbait." But her conservative parents are not amused. "It's been real hard on them," Lavelle says.

As director of the $1.6 billion toxic waste cleanup "Superfund," Lavelle has been questioned about allowing herself to be entertained at fancy restaurants by industry executives, and asked if she gave certain companies "sweetheart" deals. She has replied that she only discussed broad policy matters and not specific cases at those dinners, and, furthermore, that no "sweetheart" deals were made. And she says the only gifts she ever received were a pen and a "trash can belt buckle."

Lois Gibbs, the Love Canal housewife-turned-crusader, has picketed in front of Lavelle's Crystal City apartment building. Lavelle is convinced her phone is tapped. People stare at her in restaurants, subways, elevators. Her butcher wanted to know if she was "that EPA woman."

He told her to "give 'em hell."

"I'm still in a state of shock . . . I've never been fired from a job before," Lavelle says.

She struts into her lawyers' office and heads right for The New York Times on the end table to read yet another story about herself.

"This one's not too bad," she says with a wry smile. Her spirits appear high and she laughs a lot during the two-hour interview at the downtown law offices of Bierbower & Bierbower.

Her tone is controlled and her words measured while she chronicles the last month's horrors. She is 35 but looks older, especially in her business clothes, the K Street conservative look. Her face is pudgy, her mouth and eyes always sad--even when she is insisting she's right.

Where the blame belongs is perfectly clear to her: to coworkers, to envious onlookers, to stodgy bureaucrats, to Washington. But never to herself. Except when she says she was "naive."

"Let's face it. I was pushing for results and I was making a lot of changes," she says. "Some people can't take change whether you're a government worker or if it's in your own personal life . . . I think I might have been a little ahead of my time.

"Some say my sense of mission was strong. I was given a mission and I was trying to accomplish that mission. Often, missionaries within agencies are accused of doing their job for total self-interest. Especially in this town, they put their motivations onto you."

A self-described "loner," Lavelle says her leisure pastimes in Washington have been walking around Roosevelt Island and reading. Favorite books: Gail Sheehy's "Passages" and Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America." In high school, she says, she used to be a great quarterback until the nuns stopped her from playing with the boys.

She's single and lives alone. She was married from 1973 to 1976, but that marriage ended in annulment. She says she goes to church often, but missed Ash Wednesday services because of the investigation. Her lawyers say they used to joke about hiding her in confessionals to protect her from subpoenas.

She desperately wants to move back to California permanantly to be near her seven brothers and sisters. But so far, there have been no job offers.

"No way industry will touch her," says attorney Mark Bierbower. "She's a leper, a pariah. She's been cut loose unceremoniously without a hearing. What does she do? Where does she go? . . . She's just another Washington casualty."

But at EPA, her foes considered her manipulative, out for self-aggrandizement.

"From the first day she got here she tried to build up her own little empire. She was into power," says one high-ranking EPA official. "She is technically smart, but politically she did some things that were not real bright."

The EPA melodrama, or "Sewergate" as it has been nicknamed, began in November when Anne Gorsuch (now Burford) refused to turn over to Congress subpoenaed documents about industrial toxic-waste dump sites, provoking a contempt-of-Congress citation in December. Shortly after, the general counsel to the clerk of the House accused EPA of acting illegally in shredding subpoenaed documents.

At the heart of the controversy was Superfund, the program set up by Congress to clean up hazardous toxic waste dumps in the wake of the Love Canal disaster. And at the head of Superfund was Rita Lavelle, facing charges of ignoring environmentalists, and of eating restaurant dinners paid for by industry executives, the latter provoking inquiries about possible violations of the EPA ethics code.

Lavelle says she never read the EPA ethics code because no one told her about it. "I was never shown an ethics code, and it's typical of what happens to a lot of people when they come to Washington," she says. "You're not trained; you're not told how to conduct yourself . . ."

In addition, unnamed EPA sources began telling investigators that Lavelle had taken part in decisions involving her former employer, Aerojet-General Corp., which is charged with maintaining one of California's worst toxic waste sites. Lavelle denies this.

On Feb. 4, Gorsuch demanded Lavelle's resignation.

"I feel very naive," says Lavelle, who maintains she had no idea her dismissal was imminent. "I knew I was in the hot seat but I just assumed the backing was there. I wondered, but I was a Gorsuch supporter and she was still saying how well the program was being managed. I figured she might have some personality problems, but I thought she was above all that. I totally missed it.

"I think I let my people down, too. As their leader I should have seen something like this was coming. I was sensitive to the people at the sites, sensitive to the governors, sensitive to Congress. I thought I had all my constituencies covered, but I missed the one at home and completely failed to estimate what was going on."

Shocked and sobbing after Gorsuch attempted to fire her, Lavelle immediately appealed to the White House, where she was considered to have close ties. She had worked for then-Governor Reagan in 1969, reporting to now-presidential counselor Edwin Meese.

But Meese, Lavelle says, told her he did not want to interfere in agency personnel matters. A few days later, the White House issued a one-sentence statement saying Lavelle had been "terminated at the direction of the president."

"Though I can understand it intellectually, as a person I find it hard to understand," Lavelle says of the White House refusal to support her. "The issue should have been questioned: 'What has this person done wrong? We've known her for 15 years.' They should have asked some questions."

Since the firing, Lavelle has spent her time tesifying on the Hill, flanked by her lawyers and surrounded by photographers' flashes. During recent House hearings, she was poised and well-spoken, sitting with her hands neatly folded in front of her. At one point, she lifted a finger to scratch her eye and a dozen cameras clicked. She burst out laughing and so did everyone else.

"It's been a very trying, traumatic period in my life," says Lavelle, who left for California Thursday night. "They say your character is tested so that you can continue to build. I think I've been tested enough, thank you. I'd like to get on with my life."