Three former Environmental Protection Agency chiefs, who together have supervised more than a decade of effort to clean up pollution, yesterday agreed that that the Clean Air Act is a headache wrapped in red tape for all of them, but they disagreed on what to do about it.

Testifying before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which began its efforts to rewrite the act this week, former administrators Douglas Costle, William D. Ruckelshaus and Russell E. Train recommended giving local officials more flexibility in dealing with Washington.

They cautioned that the act had succeeded in cleaning the nation's air and does not need major overhaul.

"In the long run it is pollution and not its control that will represent the real constraint to economic growth and development," said Train, who headed the EPA from 1973 to 1977. He now is U.S. president of the World Wildlife Fund.

Ruckelshaus, who was the EPA's first chief when it was created in 1970, was the strongest critic of the three. He said the 1970 law was partly "an emotional reaction" that "embodied many of the social and political forces of its time."

It caused "false starts, misplaced priorities, overkill, underkill and political backlash" because of unnecessarily complex and redundant permit requirements, he said, and led to "a cycle of mutual distrust" among government, environmentalists and businesses.

This is causing the nation to "spend more than is wise" to control air pollution, and economic factors must be weighed in setting air standards, said Ruckelshaus, now with the Weyerhauser forest products firm.

Costle, EPA administrator from 1977 until last January, disagreed, saying that health considerations should determine standards but that economics could help determine performance requirements.

"There needs to be a vigorous and informed public debate about the [definition of] margin-of-safety issues," he said.

Now a visiting fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, Costle defended EPA's auto emissions control policy: "I think regulations are taking a bum rap" for the auto industry's troubles, he said. Only 3 to 4 percent of estimated industry retooling costs are for health, safety and environmental requirements, he said.

EPA acting Administrator Walter C. Barber Jr., in the Reagan administration's first presentation on the Clean Air Act, told the committee that there are several problems:

Complex federal-state relations "have strained the resources and tempers of all concerned." Officials of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators association (STAPPA) agreed, saying that shifting regulations, slow bureaucratic action and poor communications have led to inconsistent laws with uncertain legal status and a lot of bad feeling.

Toxic chemical emissions and the national output of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, linked to acid rain, are not addressed in the current act. Barber called for "an active research program," but Costle and William Lewis, director of the National Commission on Air Quality, said enough is now known to take some action.

The program to prevent significant deterioration of air quality where basic purity standards have been met is "a patchwork of legislation, rules and judicial opinions" that few people understand, Barber said. All sides called for its simplification.

Every special-case decision by the EPA administrator becomes a precedent lawyers scrutinize when seeking loopholes, Barber said.

"If that continues, we'll never get away from individual nitpicking," he said. The Reagan administration is planning to present detailed proposals later this year, after its nominee to head the EPA, Denver attorney Anne M. Gorsuch, is confirmed.