House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) took aim and fired on the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday, calling it "the biggest job-killing agency in inner-city America."

In his first major speech on the environment, delivered to the National Environmental Policy Institute (NEPI), a group of corporate executives and opinion-makers, Gingrich lashed out at the agency's enforcement of every major environmental statute from the 1980 Superfund law, which governs the cleanup of toxic waste dumps, to the 1990 Clean Air Act, designed to reduce air pollution nationwide.

With the speech, Gingrich made clear that he plans to try to leave his mark on U.S. environmental policy. "Let's totally rethink Superfund," he said at one point, calling the program "a national disgrace."

"If you've got to set priorities, there are things we are currently requiring that are irrational in terms of human health," he said at another point.

"The trick is to rethink from the ground up," he concluded, "not to repair the current processes."

Gingrich saved his harshest criticism for the EPA itself, calling it "a highly centralized command bureaucracy artificially trying to impose its judgment with almost no knowledge of local conditions and with a static rather than dynamic view of itself."

Gingrich, a former member of the Sierra Club and a strong supporter of the Atlanta zoo, described himself as pro-environment.

For every attack Gingrich launched, EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner stepped in with a defense. Speaking from the same podium later in the day, she said the Clean Air Act "is working" and hailed the successes of the Superfund program.

"Fine balances have been struck in each piece of legislation. These should not be casually dismantled," she said.

Gingrich and Browner were speaking at a full-day NEPI conference on "reinventing EPA." A gathering of lawmakers, Clinton administration officials, business executives and environmentalists, the conference was aimed at trying to identify areas of consensus on how the EPA can be more effective in its role, said Bruce Piasecki, an environmental specialist and one of the organizers. "We're trying to bridge some gaps," he added.

But the gap between Browner and Gingrich remained wide. For example, Gingrich railed against the agency's "brown fields" initiative, which is aimed at returning old toxic waste sites to practical uses. He dismissed it as "irrational and economically destructive."

Browner praised the program. "We are working to clean up the contaminated pieces of land that sit idle in contaminated cities across this country, to bring them back to life," she said.

Gingrich also attacked an EPA program to remove asbestos from buildings. "I know of nobody who's a scientist or who's in public health who thinks that tearing out the walls to get at asbestos is a rational strategy," he said.

Gingrich offered more criticisms than practical solutions. But he did give a glimpse into how he thinks some areas of environmental protection can be improved. He said that some wildlife protection programs should be privately managed, for instance, and that some Superfund sites should have more modest cleanup standards so that they can be turned back into industrial sites. And he said businesses, rather than the EPA, should initiate suggestions on how to reduce air pollution.

For all their differences, Browner and Gingrich appeared to agree on one key point: that states and corporations need greater flexibility in enforcing anti-pollution statutes.

"What we want to say is that we will reward getting to the right end state, we will punish getting to the wrong end state, and the rewards and punishments, whenever possible, should be economic rather than litigious," Gingrich said.

Browner struck a similar note. "By working together," she said, "we will be able to find answers to the tough questions and arrive at solutions never before thought possible -- solutions that will be cleaner for the environment and cheaper for the taxpayer." CAPTION: NEWT GINGRICH CAPTION: CAROL M. BROWNER