Anne Gorsuch Burford, 62, Dies; Reagan EPA Director
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2004; Page B06
Anne M. Gorsuch Burford, 62, the Environmental Protection Agency director who resigned under fire in 1983 during a scandal over mismanagement of a $1.6 billion program to clean up hazardous waste dumps, died of cancer July 18 at Aurora Medical Center in Colorado.
Her 22-month tenure was one of the most controversial of the early Reagan administration. A firm believer that the federal government, and specifically the EPA, was too big, too wasteful and too restrictive of business, Ms. Burford cut her agency's budget by 22 percent. She boasted that she reduced the thickness of the book of clean water regulations from six inches to a half-inch.
Republicans and Democrats alike accused Ms. Burford of dismantling her agency rather than directing it to aggressively protect the environment. They pointed to budgets cuts for research and enforcement, to steep declines in the number of cases filed against polluters, to efforts to relax portions of the Clean Air Act, to an acceleration of federal approvals for the spraying of restricted pesticides and more. Her agency tried to set aside a 30-by-40-mile rectangle of ocean due east of the Delaware-Maryland coast where incinerator ships would burn toxic wastes at 1,200 degrees centigrade.
Ms. Burford was forced to resign after she was cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over Superfund records, arguing that they were protected by executive privilege. Ms. Burford acted under President Ronald Reagan's orders, with the advice of the Justice Department and against her own recommendation, her colleagues told the press at the time. A few months later, in what one of her aides called a "cold-blooded, treacherous act of political callousness," the Justice Department announced it would no longer represent her because it was involved in investigations into corruption at the EPA.
In her 1986 book, "Are You Tough Enough?" Ms. Burford called the episode her "expensive mid-life education."
"When congressional criticism about the EPA began to touch the presidency, Mr. Reagan solved his problem by jettisoning me and my people, people whose only 'crime' was loyal service, following orders. I was not the first to receive his special brand of benevolent neglect, a form of conveniently looking the other way, while his staff continues to do some very dirty work," she wrote.
A striking woman with jet-black hair, she was described as having television-star looks and perfect manicures. She wore fur coats and smoked two packs of Marlboros a day; her government-issued car got about 15 miles per gallon of gasoline.
She could charm opponents, but she also did not shy away from political combat. Denver's Rocky Mountain News once said, "She could kick a bear to death with her bare feet."
Born Anne McGill in Casper, Wyo., she graduated from the University of Colorado in 1961 and the University of Colorado Law School in 1964. She married David Gorsuch after law school, and they traveled together to India after she won a Fulbright Scholarship. Upon her return to Colorado, she was a deputy district attorney and a lawyer for the regional Bell telephone company. She was elected to the Colorado legislature in 1976 and became known as one of the "House Crazies," conservative lawmakers intent on permanently changing government. She and Gorsuch divorced in 1979.
Reagan was her political hero, and she was thrilled to win an appointment in his administration. She said she considered the EPA director's job the "second-toughest" in government, after the directorship of the Office of Management and Budget.
More than half of the federal regulations targeted for an early review by the Reagan administration's regulatory reform team were EPA rules. Virtually all of her subordinates at the EPA came from the ranks of the industries they were charged with overseeing. Her tenure enraged environmentalists, who tied her to the equally controversial policies of her friend and fellow Coloradan, then-Secretary of the Interior James Watt. Ms. Burford was known as Anne Gorsuch until she married Robert Burford, director of the Bureau of Land Management, just a month before she resigned in March 1983.
Her resignation did not end the political fight. Reagan, seeking to reward a loyalist, appointed her a year later to the chairmanship of the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and the Atmosphere. The Republican-controlled Senate, by a vote of 74 to 19, called on him to withdraw the appointment.
She told a meeting of Colorado woolgrowers that the panel was a "nothingburger" and a "joke" that met three times a year. "They don't do anything," she said. The nation's capital, she added, was "too small to be a state but too large to be an asylum for the mentally deranged."
Those remarks further inflamed her opponents, so she withdrew from the advisory panel before she was sworn in.
She focused on her private law practice in Colorado, specializing in child advocacy law. Her son, Neil Gorsuch, said that as a young district attorney, she had pursued "deadbeat dads" long before that cause was popular, and she returned to those kinds of issues in her later work. She was still working at the time of her death.
Her marriage to Robert Burford also ended in divorce.
Survivors include three children from her first marriage, Neil Gorsuch of Washington and Stephanie Gorsuch and J.J. Gorsuch of Denver; her mother, Dorothy O'Grady McGill of Denver; a brother; and five sisters.
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