Justice Department officials said yesterday they will go to court in an attempt to help Anne M. Burford, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, avoid testifying before an Alabama grand jury investigating illegal activities in the state's chemical waste industry.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nash W. Schott said the Justice Department will represent Burford in her attempt to block a subpoena seeking her testimony before a grand jury probing allegedly illegal transfer, documentation, storage and burning of hazardous wastes in Alabama.
"I find it remarkable that the U.S. Justice Department has taken the position of blocking the grand jury's efforts to get information, " said James H. Evans, the district attorney in Montgomery County, Ala. "It's ridiculous."
Schott and Justice Department attorney Wayne R. Walters said they are representing Burford because her testimony would involve events that occurred while she headed the EPA.
They said that although Burford resigned from the EPA in 1983 following allegations of mismanagement and political favoritism, it was their duty to represent her in her role as a former federal official. Burford also has retained a private attorney.
Evans, however, said that Justice Department lawyers "could come down here with her, sit beside her, and counsel her" without obstructing the state investigation. He said Burford is an "essential witness" in the probe of how an EPA permit was changed to allow Chemical Waste Management Inc., to burn pesticide wastes "laced with dioxin" aboard the incinerator ship Vulcanus.
Evans said the ship's original permit allowed minimal burning on a research basis, but was "altered overnight to allow highly lucrative commercial burning."
The Justice Department investigated the Vulcanus permit in 1983 when it was disclosed that James W. Sanderson -- a former Burford aide at EPA who simultaneously worked as an attorney for Chemical Waste Management -- met with Burford and other agency officials about the permit. Sanderson was never charged in the conflict-of-interest case, but the Alabama grand jury is again looking into any possible improper connections.
The Montgomery County grand jury is also investigating how hazardous wastes were labeled, stored, and transfered to the ship from Chemical Waste Management's massive landfill near Emelle, Ala.
The probe has gained widespread publicity because James Parsons, the son-in-law of Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, still receives royalties on business done at the Emelle dump site.
"In no way are we trying to obstruct the state grand jury investigation," said Schott. He said, however, that in the next week he will file a motion in U.S. District Court in Alexandria to dismiss the subpoena on grounds that Burford, as a former official, has certain overriding privileges. Schott said that certain decision-making processes could be rightfully exempt from grand jury scrutiny.
The Justice Department, following a long-standing dispute with Burford, decided last month to pay her $198,000 for legal fees incurred following her refusal to release EPA files during a 1983 House probe that led to her being held in contempt of Congress.