The District of Columbia spent $1.7 million in 1972 to equip its new incinerator with modern air pollution control equipment. Today the equipment has deteriorated to the point where the incinerator is the biggest air polluter in the city. Now city officials are being forced under threat of federal action to spend another $4.6 million refurbishing it.

Ugly yellowish smoke rises from the incinerator's twin stacks off Benning Road NE -- a symbol of the enormouss cost and difficulty of meeting America's tough clean air rules.

"When they started out they probably had the best air pollution control system in the country, but the whole thing just went to pot down there," said city air pollution control officer Donald E. Wambsgans II.

Richard F. Moreland, acting administrtor of the city's solid waste management administration, said the deterioration of the equipment was caused by an "acidic problem" and "normal wear and tear."

American industry is paying 4 percent to 5 percent of its capital expenditures for air pollution equipment, the kind of outlays that give city officials like Moreland and businessmen across the country teeth-chattering nightmares.

Whether the benefits of air pollution control justify the costs is a question that lies at the heart of the great debate on Capitol Hill over the Clean Air Act, the decade-old law that is the most ambitious and expensive environmental legislation in history.

American business, backed by Reagan administration economists, has mobilized to fight many of the act's requirements and resulting EPA rules. The National Association of Manufacturers argues that the rules restrain economic growth and energy development.

In the Washington area, the Potomac Electric Power Co. spent $176 million or $345 per customer in the past decade to comply with clean air rules -- and higher costs may lie ahead.

The owners of a third of the 8,000 registered apartment and office building heating boilers in the city will have to spend up to tens of thousands of dollars each before the end of 1982 to make them burn cleaner.

Hundreds of service station owners in the city must spend thousands of dollars each to install vapor recovery systems so fumes will not evaporate when gasoline is pumped.

The clean air rules apply to educational facilities, too. It is going to cost Howard university $1 million to clean up its heating plant's emissions, and the city school system will have to spend at least $1 million to put cleaner burners in 200 boilers.

Meeting the clear air rules is so expensive and difficult that some big pollution sources have waivers allowing them temporarily to exceed pollution standards. Virginia Electric and Power Co.'s generating station at Possum Point has such variances until 1984. The U.S. Marine Corps base at Quantico has similar variances until late 1983 while its main power plant is being refurbished.

"It costs a bundle" to comply with clean air rules, said Charles C. Bohrer, vice president for manufacturing at Holladay-Tyler Printing Corp. in Rockville, where 10 high speed presses church out Time-Life books, the Smithsonian magazine and other publications.

The company spent $2.5 million on electrostatic precipitators -- devices that isolate and gather the pollutants so they may be disposed of -- and specially designed incinerators to capture hydrocarbon vapors in order to meet Maryland's stringent air pollution rules -- rules that sprang in large part from the requirements of the federal act.

People who live near the plant said the expenditure brought a vast improvement. Before the equipment was installed, big white plumes of smoke smelling like turpentine billowed through the neighborhood and destroyed the paint on houses, according to John Tyner, a nearby resident and member of the Rockville City Council.

The difficulty of meeting clean air standards is perhaps most sharply underlined by the frequent failure of government itself to meet them. The city incinerator is no isolated case. The U.S. Capitol power plant, which heats and cools the Capitol and Supreme Court, for years illegally belched smoke over the city until a private group sued and forced Congress to comply with city clean air rules spawned by its own national Clean Air Act.

Another big polluter her has been the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Southeast Washington. Asked about its smoking steam boilers, the Navy issued a long statement saying it is trying hard to comply with clear air rules. "We've had it with those guys," said Wambsgans, one of the city's air pollution control officers.

In 1979 the Environmental Protection Agency cited Andrew Air Force Base in Prince George's County for an incinerator that was spewing out more smoke than federal standards allow. Andrews since has cleaned up.

The two U.S. General Services Administration steam heating plants that provide heat for many government buildings here are behind on a compliance schedule that they agreed to in cleaning up illegal emissions.

The Montgomery County school system was ordered by Maryland air quality officials to replace 164 polluting burners on school boilers by the beginning of this year, but replaced only 89 without allocating funds for more.

Basically, Washington's air pollution comes from two categories of sources -- vehicles, and stationary sources like power plants. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, local jurisdictions here launched major air cleanup campaigns against the stationary sources -- power plants, incinerators, open burning, cement yards and building heating boilers, among others.

Such sources emit large quantities of the most dangerous pollutants -- sulfur dioxide and particles such as soot and ash. As a result of the cleanup, sulfur dioxide levels in Washington's air today are half and particles are one-third their 1960 levels.

In those early days when clean air rules were new, local air quality officials worked hard to find and register pollution sources. Eric S. Mendelsohn, Montgomery County's air pollution chief, remembers that when he started in 1967 he told his people to drive around and look for smoke. Now they don't have to do that any more -- they know the sources.

"Basically, you're not seeing the gross violations you saw five or six years ago," said Wambsgans. Walter C. Barber Jr., a top EPA official, said the air here is substantially better than it was 20 years ago. "We don't have ash falling out of apartment incinerators, we don't have smoking roofs."

Washington's biggest stationary sources of pollution indicate the limited industrial character of the region -- the city incinerator, six electric power plants, 15 federal and local government heating and power plants, three colleges and universities and nine businesses like quarries, an asphalt plant and the Holladay-Tyler printing company.

The utility industry pays among the highest costs for clean air. The Electric Power Research Institute, which represents the industry, says environmental controls account for as much as 40 percent of power plant capital costs and "operation and maintenance costs are high as well."

For Pepco, the cost of air pollution control at its six big power stations has been a source of continuing financial concern.

Pepco also provides a good example of how the nation's clean air rules clash with another priority: the need to develop domestic energy sources. The company produces 85 percent of its electricity by burning American coal, but this is dirtier than foreign-produced oil and requires more expensive pollution control equipment.

When the EPA ordered Pepco to install a $50 million sulfur scrubber on a boiler at its Chalk Point plant in southern Prince George's County, the company went to court to fight it.

Company Chairman W. Reid Thompson said the order would cost Pepco customers $450 million or $879 per customer -- $50 million for the equipment, $100 million to buy low-sulfur oil until the scrubber was installed, and $10 million a year to maintain the equipment.

Critics of the company said Thompson's figures were exaggerated, but now everybody will get a chance to find out: a federal judge recently ruled in favor of the EPA.

Over the years, Pepco has fought hard against complying with many clean air rules, and has obtained variances from them whenever possible. In many cases it has been forced to comply by the threat of court action.

"Our fundamental position is we want to behave in an environmentally sound fashion, but for our customers we want to be sure the cost is balanced by benefits," said Pepco executive Dave Boyce.

In an action forced by authorities, Pepco reduced operations at Chalk Point to 70 percent capacity pending installation of eletrostatic precipitators that will allow the plant to meet the emission standard for particles.

The reduction, which one official estimates costs $25 million or $49 per customer per year in lost use of capital equipment and costs for outside electricity purchases, illustrates the toughness of air quality officials these days. In the past, it would have been customary to let the utility operate at full blast pending installation of required equipment.

Brian Lederer, the D.C. Peoples Counsel, a public official who represents consumers in utility rate cases, said Pepco should readily comply with the clean air rules instead of fighting them to the extent it does.

"The EPE requirements are not really expensive in the total context," he said. "I support them. The clean air is worth the price."

EPA official Barber, who was the agency's acting director between administrations, said American industry has "reduced emissions from steel plants by something close to 90 percent. I think the people in those steel towns appreciate that and I don't think the steel companies are arguing that, by and large, is unreasonable. I think what their concern is how much farther they need to go . . . ."

Barber said there is no magic formula to compare clean air costs and benefits, but that the effort being made is to "weed out things that look like they have an unacceptably high marginal cost for what you're getting . . . ."

Under pressure from the EPA to find innovative and cheaper ways to clean up the air, Maryland air quality controllers are making an effort to juggle marginal costs by allowing businesses to buy and sell pollution rights. Companies that curb pollution cheaply may sell a right to pollute to another company for which such a cleanup would be expensive.

Wambsgans caught the Naval Research Laboratory in the act of polluting when, On April 14, he glanced out his office window and saw a "nice black plume" rising from the lab's nearby smokestack. Trained to sightread smoke capacity, Wambsgans recognized the plume as a "gross violation" because it was 75 percent opaque.

The lab says both old and new boilers can emit up to 40 percent opaque smoke for two minutes per hour up to 12 minutes per day. For the rest of the time, boilers made after 1976 must emit no smoke, while older ones may continuously emit up to 10 percent opaque smoke -- a level not visable to most people.

The Navy statment said a monumental effort was being made to correct the problem. Said one Navy man in the office that has responsibility for the boilers: "Unfortunately, we're right next to the clean air people."

The clean air era has forced Howard University officials to struggle for years between conflicting goals. On the one hand, they want to comply with city clean air laws; on the other, to avoid buying light grade No. 2 fuel oil, which burns cleaner than heavy No. 6 oil but costs a lot more.

According to John Nicholas, the university's chief engineer, Howard's heating boiler burned No. 6 until May 1975 when it changed to No. 2 because the boiler could not pass clean air tests. The cost was so high that in 1977 the boiler was switched back to No. 6 on the stretch of a test performed by a professor in the engineering department who reported that the plant's emissions met standards.

Not good enough, according to Wambasgans. He said Howard is in violation. The matter is now in dispute between the city and the university, which burns $5 million worth of No. 6 oil a year. Herbert L. Tucker, director of physical facilities, said it would cost another $3 million or $4 million to switch back to No. 2 oil.

In an efficient plant No. 6 oil can be used without ilegally polluting. Sibley Hospital uses it and meets clean air standards. "The guy runs a good plant and you can eat off the floor," Wambsgans said.

More amazing, Sibley's boilers have the old-style rotary cap burners that pollute so much that they become illegal in the city at the end of next year. They are illegal in new boilers in Maryland and Virginia and in old boilers in those states except under special circumstances.

The requirement to change to new, more efficient burners will affect nearly 3,000 boilers with rotary cap burners in city apartments, office buildings and other facilities, including more than 100 in the school system. It can easily cost $10,000 or more to buy and install a new burner.

David Huie, the city school system's director of buildings and grounds, conceded that with the rotary cup burners, "We probably are not in compliance with the clean air regulations of the District."

In mid-1980, after tests showed the Capitol power plant emitting two to four times the pollution permitted, the architect of the Capitol signed an agreement with the EPA to install up to $1 million in antipollution gear after a public-interest law firm, the Capital Legal Foundation, sued to force compliance.

Work on the plant is going forward -- more than a decade after Congress passed the Clean Air Act.

In an effort to curb hydrocarbon evaporation that contributes to smog, the city in 1977 ordered its 300 gasoline station owners to install vapor recovery equipment -- thus the cumbersome double hoses and special nozzles that customers wrestle with at many stations today.

The move infuriated station owners here because it cost them thousands of dollars each to install the uncertain, vanguard technology that is only required here and in a few locations in California. Virginia and Maryland air quality officials tend to view vapor recovery as a bad idea.

The special nozzles led to leaks, spills, splashes and other mishaps.

Many station owners have disconnected the systems, but city officials are checking stations and ordering them reconnected.

"They all went bad so we took them off," said a man who identified himself as the owner of Embassy Gulf at 2200 P St. NW. He said customers complained because the equipmemt caused gasoline to go "flopping all over the place." He said he is going to have to spend another $2,000 to buy 16 more special nozzles to install on his pumps.

Not all businessmen complain.

"I think it's worth it," said Mark F. Miller of Newton Asphalt Co. Inc. of Virginia, which makes asphalt, blacktop and crushed limestone.

Miller, whose father started the business 35 years ago, said baghouses that operate like giant vaccuum cleaners are used to capture the dust generated by the plants at a cost of about 10 percent of total capital outlay.

"In the old days we used wet scrubbers, took water out of the creek and sent it back down the creek," Miller said. "Now we got ducks down there and fish in it." CAPTION: Chart, Some Big Washington Polluters, The Washington Post; Picture, Modern air pollution control equipment, installed in the city's incinerator in Northeast in 1972 at a cost of $1.7 million, has deteriorated drastically. By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post