The Environmental Protection Agency will announce today an effort to put the profit motive to work enforcing air pollution regulations.

The new so-called "bubble" plan will introduce "a very new dynamic" into the decade-old battle over clean air according to William Drayton Jr., EPA's assistant adminstrator for planning. By giving industries more flexibility in the methods they use to meet pollution limits, the plan will improve enforcement of the rules while reducing costs, Drayton said.

The idea is cautiously supported by industry experts who have been analyzing it through computers since Drayton proposed it last December. It involves treating each plant, or several plants owned by one company in an area, as a single pollution source.

At the moment, each smokestack, open furnace door, spray paint area, dirt pile or other air polluter is counted separately in each plant. The new approach would put an imaginary bubble over each plant and make one tally of all the pollution coming out.

This, Drayton said, would allow the plant to juggle its smokestack emissions, furnace doors and the rest so as to meet the single total emission limit in the cheapest possible way. "If an engineer can find a way of getting the pollution out of the air for less money over here than it costs to get it out over there, he saves money for the company," Drayton said.

As an example, an Illinois brick company feared that the cost of meeting pollution control requirements on its crushing, hauling, mixing, and baking facilities together would prevent it from buying a new klin that eliminates particle emissions.

Under the new rules, eliminating particulates from the klin means that controls can be looser on the other areas with the same net effect on the environment, Drayton said. The company stays in business, and as a side benefit, the firm demonstrates a new technology that EPA may later require other brick companies to adopt.

Similarly, E.I. duPont de Nemours & Co. figured it could cut its air cleaning costs from $136 million to $55 million a year, a 60 percent saving, Drayton said. A steelworking plant study found that there were EPA regulations for 55 processes in the facility, and that the cost of getting one pound of pollutants out of the air from each process ranged form $146 to 14 cents per pound.

"As long as the total is the same, we don't care which process they use," Drayton said. There are limitations, however. Coke oven emissions, which are carcinogenic, cannot be traded for, say, dirt road dust, which is not. "Industry says there are too many limits, but I'd be concerned if they weren't complaining," Drayton said.

Environmental groups worry that the new rules will require ultra-sophisticated monitoring techniques that are not always available. Current EPA spot-checks, which rely on industry figures and assumes normally functioning equipment, will not be enough under the new system, critics say.

Drayton said his choice was either the new approach or continuing to extend tighter controls to ever smaller sources of pollution. "That would increase the hassle factor, the administrative costs and the whole battle just to stay put" as population and pollution sources increase, he said. "This way we put industry's engineers to work on our side."