BURNING COAL is dangerous. The pollutants in the smoke are poisonous, and the federal laws that control emissions from coal-burning power plants are essential to protect public health. Congress has told the Environmental Protection Agency to tighten the standards for future plants and, as you would expect, there is currently a great deal of pushing and pulling over the decisions now being made within the agency. After eight months of debate, the EPA is to publish the final standards later this month.

Some of the people in the coal industry have been complaining loudly about even the present requirements, and bitterly resist any attempt to make them more restrictive. That view is profoundly myopic. The real interests of the coal industry are hardly going to be advanced by a surge of coal-related illnesses throughout the country. If the government is going to try to save oil by increasing the use of coal, it becomes especially urgent to reduce the pollution from each ton of coal burned.

But the immediate dispute lies in a much narrower range. It is not whether to raise the standards, but how to do it most effectively. The EPA's original draft proposal would require a coal-burning plant to remove 85 percent of the sulfur in the coal before the smoke leaves the stack. That's a considerable improvement over the present regulation. But the EPA now seems to be inclined toward a more flexible formula that would allow a power plant to remove less sulfur from its coal - perhaps only 70 percent - if it uses cleaner coal.

One argument for a flat 85 percent rule is that it's easier to enforce. Another is that it gives the utilities no incentive to use clean coal, which comes mainly from the West and might cut into the market for high-sulfur Appalachian coal. Since jobs are at stake, that point has attracted much attention in Congress.

But the EPA is right - if, in fact, the EPA intends to adopt the flexible rule. The real test is the amount of sulfur emitted from the power plants. Removing 70 percent of the pollution from low-sulfur coal means cleaner air than removing 90 percent of the pollution in high-sulfur coal. As for jobs, the very high cost of transportation suggests that little western coal will be used in the East. The flexible rule does not deserve to be assailed as a sellout to coal interests. It makes good sense in terms of health benefits.

The coal standards are an illuminating example of the evolution of enviromental protection. The threat to human healt is real. The costs of protection run high; the new rules will require the investments of billions of dollars in additional equipment. The technology is complex. And, once again, Congress has left crucial political issues to the bureaucracy.