Many corporate and business leaders expressed relief yesterday that the long and disruptive row over the Environmental Protection Agency may be coming to an end with the return of William D. Ruckelshaus as the head of the embattled agency.

Some also hinted that there had been an intense fight over the last few months between parts of the business community and the White House about rigid EPA and Interior Department policies and management techniques that have so polarized environmental issues that the administration's cause was being dwarfed by its own rhetoric.

"The thing no one is going to say publicly now is that many in industry have actually been pressing for stronger environmental legislation than the administration," said one mining company executive who declined to be identified. "There has been some tremendous infighting going on."

The executive said that the reasons were not necessarily "altruistic, but out of fear of the strong negative reaction" to the management and policy approaches not only of former EPA Administrator Anne M. Burford but also of Interior Secretary James G. Watt. The executive said the polarization had resulted in a "two-year stall" involving an angry Congress and environmentalists that often blocked even "minor and realistic" modifications of environmental laws.

Few executives would publicly criticize Burford, who resigned March 9, or the administration, although all had high marks for Ruckelshaus, the first EPA director. A former deputy attorney general, he left Washington during the so-called "Saturday night massacre" when he refused a presidential order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox during the Watergate investigation.

"Ruckelshaus has a reputation for being intelligent and fair," said Jonathan Schneider, a Washington-based executive for Consolidated Edison of New York. "An attempt was made to swing the pendulum too far. I'm not saying Burford's goals were wrong. The approach just didn't work. It created too much turmoil. Maybe we need someone with a more gentle management approach to settle things down and get something done."

Other corporate officials, however, saw the EPA controversy as part of a continuing Washington saga of political gang warfare that would mean little change in the long run.

"Ruckelshaus has my esteem as a man of intelligence," said William Grant, manager of government affairs for Utah International, a mining firm.

"But this is a vicious town. My heart goes out to Mrs. Burford, and I find the future just as difficult to assess now as I did earlier.

"This was trial by press again, with the coyotes circling and six House subcommittees swarming. A lady came here trying to do a tough job, and never had a chance.

"How do you run a government when you try to change something like the Clean Air Act and, no matter what you propose, the issue simply comes out as being in favor of clean air or dirty air?"

Still, the consensus was that not only was the change inevitable but that Ruckelshaus was the right choice for the job. "The question is not really one of right or wrong," said Thomas Micheletti, vice president in charge of government affairs for Southern California Edison.

"When there is this much chaos, whether it's inside a corporation or EPA or any group, everybody's focus gets sidetracked, and a change becomes necessary. The point now is for all the factions to end the turmoil and let the EPA get on with the job it should be doing," he said