On a recent flight to Charleston, W. Va., Anne McGill Burford, then administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, was sitting on the wing row with two aides. She was reading. The pilot walked up to her seat and looked out the window. She kept on reading. Then the copilot looked out. Then a stewardess. Burford continued to read. Her staff looked out and saw that fuel was leaking from the plane. Finally, Burford coolly looked up and said, "I think it is time to get concerned."

It was time again yesterday.

Burford resigned, saying her departure was "essential to termination of the controversy and confusion" surrounding EPA. At the same time, the White House agreed to give Congress full access to EPA documents on toxic waste disposal that have been at the center of the dispute between the Reagan administration and Congress.

"I became the issue," Burford told The Denver Post last night. "I never came looking for that.

"Shoot, I can't even work anymore," she said, explaining her reasons for resigning. Dabbing at tears, her composure momentarily gone, Burford added: "That's not right. That's not good government. It's killing me."

Burford defended her record at EPA. "You guys haven't printed it, but this president has a strong commitment to the environment, and so do I," she said. Hours after handing the president her resignation, she said, "I love that guy, I really do, and I'd be proud to serve him any place. I honest to gosh look forward to doing it."

Burford left after months marked by rumors and squabbles; by shredded documents; by nicknames for the controversy, such as "Sewergate" and "Wastegate"; by firings of EPA staff members; by the Justice Department first defending, then investigating, her; by President Reagan telling her to withhold the documents, but leaving her to pay the public price; by monikers such as "The Ice Queen," and the "Joan Crawford of the Reagan administration," along with stories that she was beginning to show signs of emotional strain.

Even her public composure started to slip. Two weeks ago, she went to a group of western conservative Republicans in Denver, asking them to appeal to the president to save her job. One person who attended the meeting said Burford was visibly shaken as she sought support. At a hearing last month before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, she was near tears. And one assistant administrator at EPA said her voice started to crack and her eyes welled during a recent private meeting.

On Monday, she snapped at reporters on the familiar press stakeout at her office, saying: "It's becoming increasingly difficult when I have press people peering through my windows while I am trying to get dressed."

As she fought her increasingly lonely battle, she became a symbol, to friends and foes, of what can and does go wrong in Washington.

Ann McGill Gorsuch Burford, 40, is a paradox. She struggled to make her life private and orderly. But from her messy divorce and recent child custody fight in Denver to her monumental political troubles in Washington, her life was on display.

The person in charge of the country's environmental protection moved around Washington in a government Oldsmobile 98 Regency Brougham, which gets about 15 miles to a gallon. A close Denver friend, Ann Allot, said, "Anne couldn't grow a house plant in her whole life. We would joke about how ironic it was for her to be head of EPA. She killed every plant she had."

Burford wore beautiful fur coats and smoked two packs of Marlboros a day. Once, a witness at a Colorado legislative hearing, who was in wheelchair and had respiratory problems requiring an iron lung, asked in his opening statement that no one smoke while he was speaking. Burford, then a Colorado state legislator, smoked anyway.

But she appeared to have a softer side. She recently flew to Times Beach, Mo., to confront citizens angry about deposits of the toxic chemical dioxin in their soil.

And in the midst of the controversy over her management of EPA, she took time off to marry Robert Burford, 61, director of the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management, in an elaborate wedding with 400 guests at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown.

One of her best friends enviously describes her as a meticulous housekeeper who once scrubbed down a fireplace when she was eight months pregnant. But a legislator who shared a desk with her in the Colorado legislature says he had to put a barrier of phone books between them to stop the overflow of her papers onto his desk.

"It would take a very long time to explain the complexities of that woman," says one former Colorado state legislator. "She is bright and toughminded, but hypocritical. Personable, yet Machiavellian."

EPA is tucked between highrise apartment buildings and a shopping mall in Southwest Washington. Early yesterday, camera crews were camped outside, as they have been every day for weeks. Inside, the mood was relaxed, if not resigned.

"I need to talk to you right away--the (EPA's) Inspector General just confiscated four appointment books and is going to get Mrs. Burford's," said staffer Virginia Gibbons calmly to Lee Modesitt, head of EPA's legislative affairs office.

"We knew that," Modesitt replied. "I"ll talk to you later."

Burford's 12th floor office is in dramatic contrast to the rest of the offices, which consist mainly of bureaucratic office furniture, bleak walls and fading carpets.

Burford's suite is contemporary and vast, with a spectacular view of the Potomac River and the monuments. A fresh bouquet of daisies and carnations sat on a meticulous desk. There was not a newspaper out of place on the coffee table or a fleck of dust in sight. Over her desk hung a huge portrait of President Reagan and Vice President Bush. All her diplomas were displayed neatly behind a floor-to-ceiling potted plant. There was a framed poem: "Ode to the Ice Queen."

None of her staff seemed to know where she was.

Friends and detractors alike say she worked at the agency on a rigid and peculiar timetable, often distressing her staff by calling 5 p.m. Friday meetings that lasted hours.

She rarely began her day at the normal 8 a.m. starting time for Washington bureaucrats, often arriving at 10 or 11 a.m. "If that early," maintains one adversary who requested anonymity. "Sometimes she wouldn't come in until noon and then go right to lunch. She never scheduled morning meetings."

However, a Burford ally said she worked late into the night, sometimes phoning her staff at home as late as midnight to discuss business. "Anne always started late and worked late," said longtime friend Allot. "Once we were all playing bridge (Allot described her as a "terrible bridge player") and she commented on how lousy the morning television shows were. One of our friends said, 'How would you know, Anne? You've never been up early enough to see them.' "

What some saw as her overzealous bond to the Reagan philosophies, along with her lapses in political protocol, angered some EPA personnel early on. During the time of her nomination and confirmation, she didn't work at EPA headquarters but in an office at the Interior Department. Her style alienated many EPA career professionals.

"She's kind of hard. When something went wrong with the agency, her inclination was to pull in the reins, and control. And mine was to get it out on the table," said Rita Lavelle, who was ousted by Burford as head of the EPA Superfund, a $1.6 billion toxic-cleanup fund.

What both detractors and admirers point out is Burford's toughness. "The way she handled us big boys, the chief executives of companies, gunslingers and street fighters who are schooled in this town was humbling. She made us think we were rather incompetent in expressing our point of view," said Carl Bagge, president of the National Coal Association.

Said Khristine Hall, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund: "We asked her to try to keep the dialogue open, we asked for her assurances. She said, 'I don't have time to keep everybody informed in town who wants to be informed.' " Hall recalled a July l981 meeting between Burford and 10 environmental groups: "Frankly, I had not been treated so rudely in all my professional career as in that one-and-a-half hours."

Yet others have left meetings positively charmed. "She's anxious to listen," says Harvey Alter of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Perhaps most important is the personal warmth because of her highly undeserved reputation as the 'Ice Queen.' She was to the point, businesslike and willing to listen."

Burford has the looks of a television star, an image she maintains, even uses, some say. She often wore purple at public appearances, to complement her eyes. In Denver, her colleagues in the state legislature often joked about her perfectly manicured look. One former legislator, who served on the House Judiciary Committee with her, said, "She had a winning way with some of the legislators because she would bat her eyes at you. She is an attractive, feminine woman and she used it effectively to get what she wanted."

In Washington, she favors the Watergate beauty parlor and Elizabeth Arden. Even some of her toughest male political opponents paused to compliment her good looks.

During a Senate hearing last spring, Sen William Proxmire (D-Wisc.) opened his interrogation grinning ear to ear. "I'm a fan of Bob Newhart," said the senator. "As you know, his TV wife is Suzanne Pleshette. You look like a young Suzanne Pleshette."

Burford just smiled as Proxmire continued.

"I've seen pictures of you," he said. "I've never seen you in person before. I've been smitten."

"Maybe I'd better leave now," Burford said, laughing. Everyone else laughed, too.

She was confirmed as EPA chief in May 1981. By the fall the fireworks had started. In a campaign for governor of New Jersey, Rep. James Florio (D-N.J.) called for her resignation. About the same time the Denver Post had a cartoon that showed Burford picking the wings off a butterfly.

Burford was born in Casper, Wyo., and grew up in Denver, where her father is a prominent physician. She had a conservative Catholic upbringing, according to friends, and married another attorney, David Gorsuch, when she was 20. Friends were shocked when they separated several years ago. They have three children, Neil, Stephanie and J.J.

In Denver, she had a reputation as a brilliant and ambitious young woman, with a forceful single-mindedness when she wanted something.

She graduated from the University of Colorado law school when she was 20 and had to wait until her 21st birthday before she could take the bar exam. After graduation, she won a prestigious Fulbright scholarship, and she and her husband went to Jaipur, India, for a year.

"She told me about her Fulbright once," said a Denver attorney, "so I asked her if she wanted to go out for Indian food. She said, 'Are you kidding?' and then she proceeded to tell me how she was repulsed by India and the poverty. I couldn't believe what I was hearing."

One of her first jobs out of school was as an assistant district attorney in Jefferson County, Colorado, a Denver suburb. She and Ann Allot, also an attorney, split the time and salary of one position in the juvenile division. Later, they both moved to Denver, where they prosecuted divorced fathers who were delinquent in support payments.

"We had two children between us when we started and six when we finished and we never missed a day of work," said Allot.

When she ran as a Republican for the Colorado House of Representatives in 1976, women's groups supported her. She campaigned aggressively, walking door to door. A year later she was leading the fight to dismantle the Colorado State Commission on Women, which had worked for women's rights. She was, one politican recalled, "almost paranoid about any kind of abortion legislation."

Her reputation as the "Ice Queen" started then. "She was cold," recalls Colorado Rep. Jerry Kopel, a Democrat. "She was one of the few legislators I ever knew who could walk right by you and look right through you."

In the legislature she aligned herself with conservative Republicans, whose commitment to government deregulation and opposition to many social and political issues earned them the name of the "House Crazies." There she met her current husband, who was speaker of the Colorado House.

"I never picked up the impression she was an environmentalist," said Bowie Sewell, the former head of Colorado's Office of Energy Conservation, now an aide to Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.). "During the gasoline crisis when I was talking about the distribution of gasoline in the state, she would ask if we were getting in the way of the marketplace. That was a legitimate concern but she never asked how governments can make business do their business."

"She was a bright person as a lawyer. But I never felt she was thorough--she had a lot of loose ends," said Colorado state Rep. Arie Taylor, a Democrat. "For instance, I had a bill prohibiting the transportation of foreign waste through the state without the permission of the governor, the legislature and the department of health. She blocked it in the House but then I went to the Senate and attached it to another bill and it passed."

When Reagan won, Burford set her sights on heading the Office of Management and Budget.

She said at the time, "I gave it a lot of thought. What's the toughest job in town? David Stockman had it. The EPA was next."