When it hasn't been planning big cleanups, the Environmental Protection Agency has been granting variances to clean-air plans across the country, including in these situations in Maryland and Virginia:

* Three dryers at the Union Camp Corp.'s particle-board plant in Franklin, Va., were found to emit more particulates per hour than its emissions permit allows. New equipment is on the way, the insult to air quality is regarded as slight, so the EPA permitted the dryers to operate in violation until Dec. 15.

* Motor vehicles that Defense Department personnel want to ship to and from Norfolk can be driven without pollution-controlling catalytic converters for seven days (instead of five) before export or after import. The troops sought more time to remove or install the converters, which can be poisoned by leaded gasoline, the only kind generally available overseas.

* The General Refractories Co. of Baltimore was granted a three-year variance to a state regulation that required "no visible emissions" from the stacks. Instead, "visible emissions may not exceed 20 percent opacity." During those three years, the company will work to reduce or eliminate that amount, then the variance will be reviewed. The stacks already meet the particulate emission standards.