A historic showdown between Congress and the White House over a small pile of EPA documents appears to have ended. President Reagan blinked first. But the controversy over the Environmental Protection Agency may be just beginning, as Congress probes whether the EPA has gone soft on polluters.
The documents in question detail the agency's hazardous-waste cleanup efforts. Congress, suspecting the administration was less than enthusiastic about mopping up waste, asked last year to see the papers. EPA chief Anne Gorsuch, on Reagan's orders, refused to turn them over, citing the ''executive privilege'' of keeping presidential communications private.
But a chain of events that at times seemed to have been planned by a Hollywood soap-opera writer has made the President's stand politically dangerous. Mrs. Gorsuch was voted in contempt of Congress; Rita Lavelle, the EPA official who headed hazardous-waste enforcement efforts, was abruptly fired; EPA paper shredders began chomping up documents that may or may not have been ''sensitive.''
At his Wednesday press conference, President Reagan said he could no longer keep Congress from seeing the disputed documents ''if there's a suspicion in the minds of the people that maybe it is being used to cover some wrongdoing.''
Peace talks over the issue actually began last Friday. As of this writing, agreement hadn't yet been reached.
''I am still optimistic about the outcome,'' Rep. Elliott Levitas (D) of Georgia, chairman of a subcommittee seeking the documents, said Wednesday night.
But even if Congress gets all the papers it wants, tension between Capitol Hill and the White House over the EPA is likely to build. A phalanx of congressional members is suspicious that the Reagan administration has loosened the grip of environmental laws by simply ripping apart portions of the EPA.
At least six congressional committees are now investigating EPA activities. They are primarily interested in Superfund, the $1.6 billion pile of cash allocated to cleaning up hazardous-waste sites.
President Reagan, at his press conference, strongly defended the EPA's record on Superfund, saying agency officials had been successful in getting dumping companies to share cleanup costs.
''So far they've used up about $220 million of the Superfund, but they've also gotten about . . . another $150 million from private concerns,'' he said.
But many in Congress say cleanup under the Superfund program is moving far too slowly - and the government may not have gotten the best deal possible in some settlements with private companies.
Furthermore, they say that EPA foot-dragging on Superfund may be indicative of what's going on throughout the agency. One House committee staffer estimates that EPA enforcement activities have dropped 70 to 80 percent since the Carter years. In 1979, EPA referred 279 cases to the Justice Department for prosecution; last year, the figure was 97.
Much of this drop may simply reflect a reduction in the agency's resources. In 1981, the EPA's operating budget was $1.3 billion; the administration's proposed '84 budget would allocate $948.5 million.
Save EPA, a group headed by William Drayton, an assistant administrator of the EPA under President Carter, claims such a cut would shrink the EPA work force to two-thirds of its pre-Reagan size.
''A shattered half an agency can't do twice the job - and the agency's own workload models show that its workload doubles in the early 1980s because it is required to regulate (toxic pollutants such as cyanide) in addition to conventional pollutants,'' says Save EPA.
The President disagrees. Negotiation with offending companies, he says, ends polluting activities faster than prosecution, and at less cost to the taxpayer.