The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday ordered two controversial Ohio power plants to cut their sulfur dioxide output by 100,000 tons a year, handing a victory to northeastern states worried about acid rain.

The two coal-burning plants of the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co., among the largest plants in the nation, had become a test case in a struggle between environmentalists on the one hand and the state's high-sulfur coal interests, allied with Ohio's congressional delegation, on the other.

Sulfur dioxide, a product of burning coal and other carbon fuels, combines with water vapor at high altitudes and comes down hundreds of miles away as acid rain, which harms fish and some crops. New York and other northeastern states have been pressuring the Carter administration to place controls on the high sulfur dioxide emissions from the Ohio Valley.

But Ohio officials worried that any large clampdown on emissions would force state utilities to burn low-sulfur coal, which would hurt Ohio's high-sulfur coal mining industry. Rep. Douglas Applegate (D-Ohio), whose district includes Cleveland Electric, said 7,000 jobs were at stake.

A spokesman for Applegate said yesterday that the verdict means "some fraction" of those jobs will be lost. Noting that EPA's proposed decision in the case a year ago had allowed substantially higher levels, he said the White House had "misled" the state. "We don't think they played the game quite fair," he said.

EPA agreed that there would be some impact on jobs. In a briefing paper, the agency said the utility might have to change its coal-buying patterns at the Avon Lake plant, with "associated minor labor dislocations." The Eastlake plant, however, would suffer only "minimal disruptions," the paper said.

The new standard sets firm policy in another area with potentially far-reaching effects in the acid rain controversy. It gives the utility one year to justify its new superhigh smokestacks as necessary to avoid gound-level pollution. If wind-tunnel demonstrations don't show that, then sulfur dioxide limits will be reduced even futher.

EPA's air quality administrator, David Hawkins, confirmed that this move is the agency's first concrete policy shift to try to deal with acid rain. "We know it's not an answer to the broader question of regional loadings and we're still looking at the Clean Air Act for other tools," he said.

High smokestacks tend to disperse pollutants into the atmosphere more than lower ones and are considered a contributing factor in acid rain.

Robert Rauch, who fought for lower emission standards at Cleveland Electric for the Environmental Defense Fund, said he was "very pleased, amazed" by the decision. Ohio will still be able to use most of its coal by installing a washing process, he said, adding, "It shouldn't be a problem."

Cleveland Electric officials said they would have no comment until the new limits could be studied.

The limits are set at 5.64 pounds of sulfur dioxide per million British Thermal Units (BTUs) of heat emitted at Eastlake, and 4.10 pounds at Avon Lake, down substantially from the proposed limits of 6.58 pounds and 6.09 pounds respectively.

They were arrived at by a refiguring of the computer models so as to include the effect of breezes from Lake Erie in a rural area, rather than the urban model used to figure Cleveland Electric's allowed emissions in 1976. The utility's challenge to those standards led to the current decision. 1