A former high-ranking Environmental Protection Agency official, who was forced to resign last month by the White House, will continue to work for the EPA and draw a $63,800 annual salary.

Matthew N. Novick, who resigned Feb. 23 as the EPA's inspector general, has exercised what are known as "retreat" rights, a spokesman for the EPA said yesterday. That means the EPA has no choice except to reinstate Novick, a 20-year career investigator, to a position equal to what he held before he accepted his presidential appointment, the spokesman said.

Novick has been rehired and "detailed for 120 days" to the staff of James R. Richards, the inspector general at the Department of Energy.

Richards, who said he has known Novick for several years and has "the highest regard for his integrity and abilities," said he asked the EPA to lend Novick to him.

The 120-day detail can be extended if both agencies agree and EPA will continue to pay Novick's salary. Novick did not return a reporter's telephone calls yesterday for comment.

The White House forced Novick to resign less than a week after it was disclosed that he had written a critical audit of the $1.6 billion "Superfund" for toxic waste cleanup, alleging that much of the funds were for matters unrelated to cleanup. The timing of his resignation prompted some congressional Democrats to question whether Novick was being punished.

At the time, Novick also was under congressional fire for allegedly mishandling an investigation of Denver attorney James W. Sanderson, who had been accused of improperly aiding legal clients while serving as a paid, part-time adviser to EPA Administrator Anne M. Burford. Novick's probe cleared Sanderson of any wrongdoing.

Novick also was under investigation by the General Accounting Office on charges that he violated a number of federal regulations. GAO issued a report last week that cleared him of all charges except one. It said Novick had ordered his secretary to type his personal letters and his son's term paper on government time.