In the 1960s, apartment incinerators in Washington spewed smoke like miniature volcanoes. So did the Arlington County incinerator. So did power plants, factories and cars here and across the nation. People complained, but officials did little.

Today, much of that has changed. The Clean Air Act of 1970, the most ambitious and expensive environmental legislation in history, caused a vast national cleanup. The real killer emissions -- sulfur oxides and tiny particles from industry -- declined sharply enough to increase the life of the average American by a full year, although the less dangerous smog caused by car emissions remains a problem in Washington and elsewhere.

Now the act is being criticized by American industrialists and Reagan administration economists, who argue that the progress to date may have been worthwhile, but that each additional dollar from here on in is buying fewer benefits. In this view, the act is inflationary and a drag on productivity.

President Reagan declared during the campaign that air pollution has now been "substantially controlled" and said if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continued to have its way, "You and I would have to live in rabbit holes . . ."

Environmentalists and officers of health organizations such as the American Lung Association couldn't disagree more. In Congress, which must reauthorize the act by the end of September, a raging debate is under way over costs and shifting national priorities.

In a broad sense, the battle has become a monumental struggle over what Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) once called a clash of "the values of the 1960s and 1970s with the realities of the 1980s and 1990s." Have we cleaned the air all we reasonalby can at a time when the economy is shaky? If we ease up, will air pollution shorten our lives? Should we encourage domestic energy production even if this means burning more dirty coal?

The cost of the air cleanup has been enormous, even by U.S. standards -- $118 billion in the past decade, or $2,110 for every four-member household, and outlays promise to be three times that in the decade ahead.

In 1979, an estimated $22.3 billion was spent to implement the act: $1.5 billion at government facilities; $8.1 billion for vehicle emission controls; $8.4 billion by electric utilities and $4.3 billion by other industries.

In Washington, the Clean Air Act added $345 to your electricity bill during the last decade and $215 to the price of your car. It raised your local tax bill to pay for leaf collection, your gasoline bill to pay for vapor recovery systems at service stations (if you live in the District) and added to many other bills in other ways.

If you are a federal employe with free parking, it still may mean that you will lose that perquisite even though a federal judge recently ruled on your side. And it may have affected you if you are a businessman -- for example, a contractor causing plaster dust or an operator of a print-shop that emits ink vapors.

The Clean Air Act is about to inconvenience almost everybody in Washington and 36 other metropolitan areas by requiring annual automobile emissions inspections. They start within the next 1 1/2 years, and failure during an inspection means shelling out for repairs.

Finally, meeting the legislation's idealistic goals has proved difficult for bureaucratic and technological reasons. In some instances, officials can't make sense of the data, even if they can obtain it accurately and consistently in the first place. And yet billions of dollars are pumped one way or another on the basis of what data is available.

On the other hand, the act has made your life more pleasant and healthy, even though you may not always notice. If you are one of tens of thousands here who suffer from respiratory diseases such as asthma and emphysema, it may be a daily blessing.

Drive around Washington today and you will see a city of virtually smokeless smokestacks -- a marvel accomplished by the installation of complex "scrubbers" and electrostatic precipitators, devices to take pollutants out of the air and gather them in removable form. Apartment owners must now haul trash instead of burning it, and the Arlington incinerator's operations have been curbed.

In industrial cities, the improvement has been even more dramatic. If you drove through the Baltimore tunnel a decade ago you were bombarded with smoke and stink from nearby factories that have now been cleaned up. In 1974 Pittsburgh had 21 episodes of pollution so bad that industry had to curtail output, but only two in a recent one-year period. A pall of industrial haze hung over Birmingham until the mid-1970s, but now pollution alerts are few.

"Overall, the nation's air quality is continuing to improve," the latest report of the President's Council on Environmental Quality concluded. It said total unhealthful days in 23 urban areas studied, including Washington, decreased, on the whole, 18 percent from 1974 to 1978 -- the latest comprehensive data available. Nevertheless, because of its smog problem, Washington was the ninth most polluted area in the country in the years 1976 through 1978, with an average of 97 unhealthful days a year. Air here was better than in Los Angeles (242 unhealthful days a year) or Pittsburgh (168), but worse than in Detroit (65) or San Francisco (30).

Whether the nation's air continues to improve during the coming decades depends on whether Americans continue to be willing to devote even more billions each toward the goal.

As things stand now, active planning is going on here and nationally to preserve gains already made and clean the air more. Here, officials are preparing a plan to meet standards for automobile-caused pollutants by 1987, the last federal deadline under the act as it is now written.

The Reagan administration has already curbed some clean air rules to help the ailing automobile industry and is considering a drastic overhaul of the act, including the elimination of certain standards in favor of state standard-setting.

A draft of the administration's proposals that was leaked last month touched off a dispute in Congress. Sen. Robert T. Stafford (r-Vt.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Rep. Harry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Health and Environment subcommittee, said the draft went far beyond the "fine tuning" they have been seeking in the legislation.

The draft, a working paper from the EPA, would abolish some air pollution control standards, make government enforcement lawsuits optional, and allow states to judge their progress toward meeting federal standards under easily extended deadlines.

Waxman has described the proposed revisions as "a blueprint for destruction of our clean air laws," and Stafford has said that the draft proposals might be no more than a trial balloon. The new EPA administrator, Anne McGill Gorsuch, says the administration is committed to reauthorizing the legislation as long as that is accompanied by "regulatory reform."

Stafford's committee has set hearings for July 13 to receive Reagan's package of proposals.Nothing has been scheduled yet on the House side.

The Clean Air Act was a no-nonsense piece of legislation that grew out of an era when polls showed Americans rating pollution above crime as a serious problem. It was the year of Earth Day 1970, a time when Northern Virginia Girl Scouts wearing gas masks crowded into air quality hearing rooms in support of irate citizens demanding cleaner air.

The mood spread to the government as well, Declaring air "our most vital resource" and seizing the political initiative to the dismay of Democrats, president Richard Nixon pressed Congress in 1970 for sweeping and stringent new clean air legislation.

Under the resulting Clean Air Act -- legislation in the form of amendments to earlier laws -- and its 1977 amendments, Congress ordered the automobile industry to cut emissions 90 percent by 1975 -- a deadline that has been pushed back to this year. Specific emission allowances were set for various industries. National standards were set for allowable levels for seven air pollutants -- sulfur dioxide, particles, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, ozone and lead -- and states were ordered to meet them or forfeit federal highway and sewer money.

Within a few years, however, the initiative was losing momentum, and by 1978 Carter administration inflation fighter Robert Strauss was singling out federal clean air rules as a chief cause of inflation. Today, polls show people are only about half as concerned about air pollution as a decade ago.

Aside from declining national interest, there are other broad-ranging difficulties with the act as we move farther into the 1980s -- and farther from the initial impulses that gave it life. Some cities, for instance Los Angeles, will never meet today's air pollution standards unless people there are kept out of their cars by force. Short of that, federal officials have no choice but to eliminate the deadline or continually postpone it.

While cities must meet the national standards, relatively clean areas of the nation must meet even tougher standards designed to prevent them from getting too dirty, causing industrialists to complain that development is being hindered in the West and South.

Furthermore, there are different standards for different industries and tougher standards for newer plants, which industrialists say tend to encourage the retention of old, inefficient factories.

When pollution was a major public issue and a high priority item on the national agenda, complaints from the public flooded in to local officials; today, other issues have outpaced pollution, but complaints still come in.

"They are more specialized and more localized, centered around some specific industry rather than the general air quality," said Carl P. York, chief of compliance in Maryland's Air Management Administration. "People want to know how the chemicals are affecting them and their children. It's much more complicated than in the past."

"Our complaints are about smoke coming from buildings, fugitive dust, dust from construction sites," said Claud B. Jones, chief of compliance for the District's bureau of air and water quality. "It's seasonal. In summer, we get quite a few complaints about idling buses."

Jones issues $50 tickets to bus drivers who idle more than three minutes in one place in warm weather. He said one local hotel company and its contractor were fined $1,500 during a recent renovation because of dust. "We hit 'em and they cleaned up their act."

Montgomery County Council Chairwoman Ruth Spector said she thinks people still care about air quality. But she conceded that "it's sort of hard to make a lot of people focus on it unless you're going to get a factory in your neighborhood that's going to to belch out smoke, or a highway nearby. . . ."

In Lynnhaven, an Alexandria subdivision, residents were complaining a decade ago about the soot showered on them by the nearby Arlington County incenerator.

Today that's no longer a problem, but resident Naomi Howard recently said that dust from cars speeding along nearby Rte. 1 irritates a "condition with my nose, something similar to sinus," Ruby Tucker, another resident, said dust from a nearby rock-crushing operation "gets all over everything."

Most of America's airborne junk comes not from incenerators or rock-crushing but from burning oil, gasoline and coal in automobiles, power plants, and industrial and building boilers. Some of it evaporates from gasoline stations, architectural coatings, evey dry-cleaning plants. Road and construction dust adds to it. All these are among the sources that the Clean Air Act and the local legislation that it spawned seek to control.

While the Washington area has met the federal standards for allowable sulfur dioxide and particles mainly by curbing power-plant and incenerator emissions during the last decade, it has not met those for ozone, carbon monoxide or lead -- all considered automobile-caused pollutants. Washington's major problem is the automobile, unlike some other cities that suffer from more dangerous industrial pollutants.

In addition, the weather here is no help. "It's unusual, without industry, that we have such a problem," said Austan Librach of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, an association of local governments that is preparing the Washington area's plan to meet the 1987 federal deadline for automobile-caused pollutants. It's topography. We're in a bowl, in a swamp, we get the inversions that some metro areas are not affected [by]." An inversion is a mass of hot air at high altitudes that keeps polluted air near the earth from rising.

James M. Hand of the National Weather Forecast Office said lack of wind is a more important factor than inversions in causing pollution buildups. If there is wind, he said, it blows the pollution away.

During the last two summers -- and so far this summer -- air quality here was so good that there were no smog alerts, a sharp improvement from the previous average of 16 alerts days a year. However, officials say that this may be due to favorable weather rather than pollution control measures.

Another problem in dealing with pollution in the Washington area is that the region is going to grow. Projections are that the area's population will increase 22 percent to 3.7 million between 1976 and 1987. At the same time, auto and truck mileage traveled daily in the area is expected to increase 47 percent to 57.8 million.

To avoid losing federal highway and sewer funds, governments here will have to make strong efforts to meet the ozone standard by 1987 -- at least the way the act is written now.

Hank Sokolowski, an official of the EPA's regional office in Philadelphia, which monitors air quality in Washington, said that besides placing controls on such sources of pollution as automobile painting shops and laundries, jurisdictions here will "have to do more -- bus lanes, car pools. They may have to consider incentive and disincentive plans to get people out of their cars and into buses. Bike lanes. Parking charges -- any incentive. oSubsidized mass transportation. Fees to cross the bridge. I could give you a list of 200."

In some respects, jurisdictions here have been in the vanguard of the nation's air pollution control efforts. The District's gasoline station vapor recovery law, for example, is the only one in the nation outside California. It requires nozzles with seals and double hoses to capture vapors when you pump gasoline into your car. And Maryland's "zero opacity" requirement that no visible smoke come from any smokestack is the toughest in the country, although it may be eased this year.

Today each Washington area jurisdiction has an active staff of air quality officers who check pollution sources. General air quality is monitored at 54 local sites, part of an 8,000-site national network.

John Doherty, air quality chief in Northern Virginia, said his small office keeps tabs on 1,800 registered sources of pollution, including 500 schools, 600 service stations, 350 big office and apartment building boilers, and many huge boilers like those at the Pentagon power plant.

In addition, the office issues permits for new polluting factories and other businesses. Doherty has dealt with Coors, General Electric, Capitol Records, du Pont. "The big companies don't play games," he said. They plan right from the beginning of a project how to comply with clean air laws.

John Yetman, one of Doherty's inspectors, said he examines 350 pollution sites a year to make sure they're not polluting excessively. He may inspect company records or conduct stack tests by inserting instruments into smokestacks.

At other times, Yetman resorts to a tried-and-true regulatory approach: "I'll drive out into the area and see if there is smoke in the air."