The Environmental Protection Agency announced 40 regulatory reform actions yesterday, paving the way for significant changes concerning everything from noncompliance penalties to a "sunset" policy that would automatically cancel reporting requirements after four or five years and require that the regulations be justified before being renewed.

"These regulatory reforms will promote efficiency, clarity and economic inventiveness in meeting environmental standards," said EPA Administration Douglas M. Costle in announcing the program. "They are true initiatives toward the President's goal of making the government more workable."

He said the revisions "open the agency even more to public participation and public accountability."

The sunset regulation has stirred interest among some consumer groups, which have lobbied for similar rules in all federal agencies. Under the sunset rule, the burden of proof that massive reporting requirements should be continued beyond a certain date is on the agency. The EPA would be the first agency to implement such a rule.

Other revisions include the reduction of reporting requirements both internally and from outside firms subject to regulations, rewriting of many regulations to make them "readily comprehensible to the layperson," and increased public participation in EPA policy decisions.

On the issue of possible penalties, the agency is assessing violators of emissions regulations the amount they are saving by failing to comply. "These penalties will protect companies that have complied with the law from unfair competition," the EPA statement said.

The agency is also looking at ways to control new construction while encouraging attainment of health standards fairly and effectively.

The EPA policy specifies that a new or modified source of air pollution may be approved in an area that is failing to meet national air quality standards only if the new emissions are more than offset by reductions in emissions from existing sources in the area.

The reduction of paperwork and time-consuming delays in obtaining permits for such things as sewage treatment plants are other objectives of the proposed revisions.

"This shows the government is responding to the call for reform," said David Cohen, president of Common Cause, when informed of the package. He singled out the sunset proisions as "a major step."