SINCE THE Clean Air Act of 1970, the Tennessee Valley Authority's pollution record has earned it an inglorious reputation. In late June, five citizen suits and one state suit (Alabama) were filed in district courts to force TVA to meet state emission standards in 10 of its 12 coal-fired electrical generating plants. This week, the federal Environmental Protection Agency joined the court battle. Barbara Blum, the agency's deputy administrator, succinctly summarized the situation: "EPA has spent months trying to get TVA to comply with provisions of the Clean Air Act, yet the violations continue with little effort to achieve air-pollution reductions. As the nation's largest electric utility, TVA should be a showcase for energy and environmental coexistence."

In defiling the air with sulfur oxide, the TVA apparently has believed that its status as a federal agency gave it exemptions from obeying the law. Even then, the record suggests that EPA and the states gave TVA what one suit calls "extraordinary opportunities" to plead its case for leniency. At one point, EPA allowed the authority to reduce its sulfur-oxide emissions by 38 per cent, whereas a 72 per cent reduction was required for some of the other power plants in Tennessee. This meant TVA was allowed at one plant to spew some 48,000 tons more sulfur oxides than were permitted by the state's original plan. One TVA strategy for meeting its pollution problems was the use of tall stacks. But this meant the emissions were merely pumped higher into the air, not so much that they were decreased. This pollution-in-the-clouds approach was seen by the EPA as another delaying tactic, not to mention that the higher-blown emissions were scattered over a wider area.

As the courts decide the case, the TVA is gaining a measure of positive attention. President Carter, aware that much of the criticism against the authority over the past decade has been valid, has nominated S. David Freeman to fill a vacancy on the three-member TVA board. Mr. Freeman, a practical environmentalist, is familiar with the reasons for TVA's notoriety in environmental circles. He also has some imaginative ideas on how the authority can be returned to a position of leadership in energy. His nomination, coupled with the current litigation, may mean the change in direction that the TVA desperately needs.