The Environmental Protection Agency Thursday declined to establish a new clean air standard to protect asthmatics from peak exposures to sulfur dioxide that might last only a few minutes.

Those exposures might occur around sources that meet all current standards based on longer measurement times, sources like coal-burning power plants, smelters and factory boilers.A burst of emissions from a plant, or even rare wind patterns, might cause people living nearby to face high concentrations briefly.

Environmentalists denounced the decision embodied in a draft affirmation of current standards.

"There is a whole slew of evidence" accumulated since 1980 that many asthmatics are not being protected by current standards, said David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council, claiming that "for this administration the wishes of the utility industry always come first."

At the Edison Electric Institute, the principal trade association for utilities, spokeswoman Susan Roth said EPA's decision "reflects a careful weighing of all the scientific evidence." She said current standards reduced average sulfur dioxide concentrations by 37 percent between 1977 and 1986.