Virginia's environment is getting cleaner and healthier in many ways and has improved overall since 1985, says a new study by the Center for Environmental Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The study, titled "Virginia Environmental Quality Index" and released Tuesday, stated that air quality and water quality in the commonwealth are improving, that toxic inputs "seem to be" decreasing and that wetlands losses continue to increase but in a trend that "is not statistically significant . . . based on estimates from data available."

But environmental organizations throughout Virginia sharply countered that assessment.

"I don't know what they're talking about or where they're talking about, but it's not here," said Stella Koch, Virginia conservation associate for the Audubon Naturalist Society. "I have to question how many miles of streams are actually monitored."

Andrew Lacatell, the principal investigator in the two-year study, said, "Over the last 15 years, conditions today are certainly better than they were," although he conceded some of the points made by the environmental groups.

He said he did not know the total stream mileage monitored by Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality, which provided the data that formed the basis of the study.

Roy Hoagland, the Virginia assistant director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the total number of river miles identified by the state as "impaired" under federal standards increased by 669 miles from 1994 to 1996 and by 711 miles from 1996 to 1998, although the latter increase may be because of a technical change in monitoring, according to the Department of Environmental Quality.

Hoagland also countered the study's wetlands assessment, saying Virginia has lost more wetlands in the last year than it had in the previous decade. The reason, he said, is a 1998 U.S. District Court ruling in the National Mining Association v. the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which leaves more than a quarter of the state's 1.75 million acres of wetlands at risk of development.

On the question of air quality, Joy Oakes, the Sierra Club's Appalachian region staff director, said the Washington area is having some of its worst air pollution in years, with Code Red days even on the weekends, when there is less traffic. And according to the Southern Environmental Law Center, Shenandoah National Park had more days of excessive ozone levels in 1998 than it had had in a decade, with 1999 on track to be just as bad.

"I don't deny any of those facts," Lacatell said. "If you take out certain subsets, you're obviously going to find certain trends that would buck the overall trend."

Federal standards for air and water take into account more parameters than the VCU team did because of time and funding restrictions, he said. For example, he offered, VCU evaluated only three air pollutants--sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone--compared with six pollutants tracked for federal standards.

Environmental groups lauded the study on one point, agreeing with its cautionary note that population increases led to greater environmental stress.

Jay Timmons, a spokesman for former governor George Allen (R), who is challenging the Charles S. Robb (D) for a U.S. Senate seat in 2000, credited both Allen and his predecessor, L. Douglas Wilder (D), for the environmental progress. Critics of Allen, who was governor from 1994 to 1998, said he had a weak environmental record, and Timmons said the report is a vindication.

"What we said from the start was don't judge us on process, judge us on the results of that process," Timmons said.

John DiBiase, Robb's spokesman said: "Senator Robb hasn't had a chance to review the report. He has long supported federal environmental policies like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act because he wants Virginia's environment to be clean and safe."

The study, which was financed by the Virginia Environmental Endowment, serves as a baseline for annual or biannual studies, Lacatell said, and doesn't try to judge whether Virginia's environment is good or bad.

"It just says things are getting better," he said.

CAPTION: Friends fish on the Potomac River north of Leesburg. A new study says Virginia's environment, including water quality, has improved since 1985.