INDUSTRY complains loudly and often with justification about the growing burden of complying with environmental regulations. Traditional regulatory policy that sets precise pollution standards and specifies how each is to be met may mean, for example, that a large steel mill, oil refinery, or chemical plant might have to meet 40 to 50 different standards.

Government bureaucrats, though they are less often heard to complain, are equally awar of the growing burden. As major new sources of pollution -- such a toxic chemicals and hazardous wastes -- come to be recognized, and as sophisticated technologies became able to detect smaller and smaller amounts of pollutants in the environment, the more enlightened regulators have come to recognize that new ways of controlling pollution must be developed or else government and industry will drown in a flood of paper work and lawsuits.

So far, the leader in proposing sound substitutes for traditional standard-setting and enforcement has been the Environmental Protection Agency. For various reasons, however, its proposals have yet to meet with much success.

A year ago, EPA announced several changes in its clear air programs. One, known as the "bubble," seemed especially promising. A large factory or refinery would be envisioned as sitting inside an invisible bubble with a single opening. Instead of having to meet several dozen different emissions standards, the company would simply have to ensure that the emmissions from the bubble were no greater than the sum of the individual emissions sources. Within that limit, the company could adjust the totals to minimize the cost -- removing more of the pollutants that cost the least to remove and less of those that cost more to control.

The idea was to return some initiative to the private sector and to introduce flexibility while preserving the requirements of the Clean Air Act. In practice though, EPA's rules were so strict that they negated much of the good intent. A company had first to propose its own "bubble" plan, then secure state approval, then have its plan and then get final approval from the EPA. Not surprisingly, few companies volunteered. Recognizing its mistake, EPA now plans to adopt a suggestion made by New Jersey that final approval of "bubble" plans be left to state officials.

It remains to be seen if removing the requirement for final federal approval is enough to make the plan attractive to industry. EPA will still impose many restrictions, and so far only one type of air pollution is to be covered. Nevertheless, it is certainly another step in the right direction.