While former assistant administrator Rita M. Lavelle was making her stormy exit from the Environmental Protection Agency, the agency was trying to figure out the fees it owes private lawyers hired last year to help Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch fight congressional subpoenas for documents on Lavelle's hazardous waste cleanup program.

In January, the EPA abruptly canceled plans to sign a year-long contract for up to $70,000 with the Boston law firm of Ropes & Gray after the move was questioned by White House counsel Fred F. Fielding, who said it caught him by surprise. A large team of Justice Department and EPA lawyers was already at work on the case, and the money for the outside legal assistance was to come from an EPA fund that pays for studies of air, water and toxic pollution.

Two Ropes & Gray lawyers already had advised the agency for almost a month, without a contract or a set fee, on how to challenge the House of Representative's historic contempt citation against Gorsuch for refusing to turn over certain hazardous waste files.

For that work, a senior agency official said, the EPA has decided it owes the law firm "an amount not to exceed $19,500, probably more in the range of $18,000." The figure is still being negotiated, based on hourly fees for the two lawyers, Thomas M. Susman and G. Marshall Moriarty, but the agency and the firm are expected to sign off on it soon, the EPA official said.