The Virginia Water Control Board, without notifying the public, met with state and local government officials and select others in Fairfax County Tuesday night to discuss relaxing standards for treating sewage before it is discharged into the Potomac River.

Richard Burton, executive director of the board that sets standards for sewage treatment plants in Virginia, said that a proposal under study would allow some Northern Virginia treatment plants to discharge higher levels of pollutants. However, he said, such action in theory would "not depart from or degrade water quality."

He emphasized that the board's staff had taken no position on the proposal. A staff recommendation is to be made to the seven-member board at its March 28 meeting and numerous public hearings will be held before the board makes a decision, Burton said.

The two-hour meeting at Virginia Tech's Merrifield campus came the same day that the Virginia Senate passed the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act to protect water quality in the bay, where the Potomac empties. The legislation, which Gov. Gerald L. Baliles has pledged to sign, would require that the bay's water quality be considered when most Northern Virginia jurisdictions decide zoning cases.

The proposal discussed Tuesday night raises the question of whether the water board should change the way it determines the permissible levels of such pollutants as phosphorus and nitrogen that are discharged into the Potomac from six Virginia sewage treatment plants.

The debate revolves around the question of whether the bottom line is more important than the increments leading to it.

Currently, Virginia regulates sewage plant discharges into the Potomac by specifying limits for given pollutants as measured at a plant's discharge.

Under the proposal, the only thing that would count would be the water quality in the river itself. If the river were unusually healthy, the plant could relax its treatment standards; if the river needed help, the plant could intensify treatment.

Current plant standards were established in 1971 when the Potomac was a national disgrace. Fish life had disappeared, and green algae blooms overtook the Tidal Basin.

As part of the regional effort to clean up the river, Virginia established limits on pollutants that were technically impossible to meet at the time and that some plants still fail to meet in part because of the high cost of sewage treatment.

Burton said that the limits leave "no exercise in judgment on permit decisions" and are costly to achieve. He said that, according to a study by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary, the same water quality can be achieved even if limits for specific pollutants are raised.

Noman Cole, former chairman of the water board when the limits were established, called the proposal a "relaxation of effluent limits . . . . " Looking around the room, Cole said that many people there were plant operators he'd known for 20 years, "and if you ever fought for tighter standards, I'd sit up here right now and have a cardiac arrest on the spot."

Cole said that setting limits on specific pollutants at the plants was responsible for the progress in cleaning up the Potomac and that changing those standards would be a step backward.

In opening the meeting, Burton said that he hoped to have a "full exchange of thoughts and ideas" by "not relying solely on by-the-book public hearing requirements," claiming that public hearings sometimes lead to "a lot of misunderstanding."

Attendance was by invitation only, although a reporter identified himself and was permitted to remain. Representatives at the meeting included three members of the Water Control Board, officials from Fairfax, Prince William, Loudoun, Arlington and Stafford counties, Alexandria and Leesburg, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens Associations, among others.

A spokesman for the water board, asked why the meeting was not advertised so the public could attend, said yesterday, "We had every intention of trying to make the process work better than normal and if we made a mistake, we're sorry."