A federal judge here has given the Environmental Protection Agency 60 days to decide whether sulfur pollution from the Midwest is fouling the air in Northeast, handing environmentalists and New England a victory in the latest round over acid rain.

U.S. District Court Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, in a decision filed late last week, rejected the EPA's argument that it needs more time to rule on petitions filed more than three years ago by New York, Pennsylvania and Maine.

The states had asked the EPA to force smokestack industries in the Midwest to curb sulfur emissions, arguing that the emissions were contributing to acid rain and other air pollution problems downwind.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA had 60 days to rule on those petitions. When the EPA had not acted by last March, the three states filed suit to force a ruling.

Shortly after the case was argued before Johnson, the EPA proposed to deny the states' petitions. The states cannot challenge that decision until it becomes final, and the EPA said it did not expect to issue a final decision until April. Johnson's ruling means the EPA must issue a final decision by December.