The always-testy relationship between the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Management and Budget has been downright antagonistic for the last few years, but you'd scarcely know it from talking to most EPA officials.

Like feuding parents who avoid fighting in front of the children, the two agencies have taken pains to keep their quarrels private. Questions about OMB's role in reviewing EPA regulations generally elicit nothing more than a shrug and a bland comment about different perspectives.

So when the acting chief of EPA's air division recently sent a message to a top OMB official, accusing the budget office of "grossly" delaying Clean Air Act regulations, the missive drew a fair amount of attention.

The complaint came in a letter from career employe Charles Elkins to Robert Bedell, deputy director of OMB's regulatory affairs office.

Elkins noted that OMB has missed its official review deadlines for 11 of 12 regulations sent over by the air office, some of which have been awaiting OMB clearance for nearly a year.

The OMB is supposed to pass on "minor" rules within 10 days, major proposals in 60 days and final rules in 30 days.

"We have a management problem which is getting out of hand," Elkins wrote.

The OMB has become notorious for holding up rules that its officials perceive as overly expensive or burdensome, but Elkins told Bedell that many of the rules now languishing at the budget office don't appear to be in that category. Several routine rules involving performance standards for new pollution sources have been awaiting action for months, "even though it is likely few significant issues will surface," he wrote.

Elkins said yesterday that he considered the letter a "routine memo," and his complaints were not directed at the substance of OMB's decisions, just their timeliness.

"We have hundreds of people turning out rules, and they have one person reviewing them," he said. "It's not that the guy isn't working like the dickens."

Nevertheless, the letter drew discreet cheers from other EPA officials, who said privately that Elkins is voicing a common frustration with the "black hole" at the OMB.

The number of genuine disagreements between the agencies are few, they say, in comparison to the number of rules that simply vanish for months without a bubble to mark where they sank. EVEN IN THE BEST OF FAMILIES . . . In announcing its $19 million settlement last month with 158 companies to clean up toxic contamination at the Chem-Dyne site in Hamilton, Ohio, the EPA released a list of all the known generators of waste at the site and their share of the cleanup costs.

Down toward the bottom, No. 166 on a list of 178 settling and non-settling companies, was the Ohio EPA. According to the federal EPA's list, the Ohio agency contributed six drums of waste to the site and owes $25,040.24 toward the cleanup. The type of waste was not identified, and the list indicated that the Ohio EPA had not yet paid up.