Washington — Respectability is the most important virtue William D. Ruckelshaus will bring to his new job as chief of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Well-regarded by business, environmentalists, and members of Congress, Mr. Ruckelshaus should be able to calm the storm now swirling around the embattled agency.
But Congress will busily continue to investigate EPA's past activities. And Ruckelshaus must soon deal with a series of tough environmental problems, while suspicious critics peer over his shoulder - poised to pounce on any move they feel shows further Reagan administration retreat from environmental protection.
''The real question is why would anybody want [that job?]'' says a congressional source involved in scrutinizing EPA.
Ruckelshaus, currently a senior vice-president of the forest products firm Weyerhaeuser, flew to Washington from his West Coast home Monday and officially accepted nomination to the post of EPA administrator.
To some extent, he knows the turf: From 1970 to 1973, Ruckelshaus served President Nixon as the EPA's first chief. Back then, he had the daunting task of starting and de-bugging brand-new US environmental laws.
''He was well-respected his first time around,'' says David Burwell, a National Wildlife Foundation official. ''He did the best job he could under difficult circumstances.''
Now Ruckelshaus's first job will be to rebuild EPA's relationship with Congress, which was shattered by the style of his predecessor, Anne Burford, and by the White House's refusal to release certain EPA documents requested by Congress. On Monday, his first day back in Washington, the EPA's administrator-designate was already making courtesy calls on Capitol Hill. Senate majority leader Howard Baker predicted he would be quickly confirmed.
As one House aide points out, ''After Gorsuch [now Mrs. Burford], [our relationship with EPA] has nowhere to go but up.''
But even if Ruckelshaus ''puts the agency right back on track,'' says this source, ''their past ways still have to be accounted for.''
That means congressional investigations into EPA activities will continue, focusing on abuses of the $1.6 billion Superfund toxic waste cleanup program, possible illegal behavior by top EPA officials, ideological surveillance of lower-level EPA employees, and alleged instances where the EPA was too friendly to industrial polluters.
The House of Representatives, in particular, is likely to remain suspicious of White House plans for the EPA. Whatever their personal regard for Ruckelshaus , House members say they are most concerned about what they feel is the Reagan administration's lack of regard for the environment.
''Whatever stars they bring in, it won't matter if they're working with the same sad script,'' says Rep. Elliott H. Levitas (D) of Georgia, chairman of a subcommittee investigating the EPA.
At the press conference announcing his nomination, Ruckelshaus said the President had promised him the ''flexibility'' he felt necessary to do a good job. But he faces an upcoming series of problems critics are sure to scrutinize with a careful eye:
* Many critics will be closely watching Ruckelshaus appointments to second and third level EPA posts. ''We can't have just one good person in charge,'' says Caroline Isber of SAVE EPA. ''We need to rebuild the agency's personnel infrastructure.''
* EPA resources and enforcement actions have been cut drastically over the last two years. House sources say they're looking for signs of a renewed commitment to chasing polluters, and for more money and manpower to be devoted to the job.
* Congress this year will likely attempt to tighten the Superfund law and other laws that deal with the disposal of toxic substances. Capitol Hill will be watching carefully for Ruckelshaus's reaction.
* The Clean Air Act, which expired last year, needs authorization. Ruckelshaus must decide what type of rewrite to push for. An administration and industry-backed bill stalled last year in Congress.
* Many other environmental laws - Clean Water, Ocean Dumping - will also require reauthorization.