It was an ill wind that brought Anne Burford to the Environmental Protection Agency and it was another one, in gale force less than two years later, that blew her out. Burford was a pack member of conservative ideologues who came to EPA and the Interior Department spoiling for a fight. They were anti-regulation, anti-government and anti-environmentalist. The fight Burford wanted was the one she got.
With bravura parading as political sophistication, she moved against the moderate controls passed by Congress to protect the environment. This is what Ronald Reagan egged her and the sagebrush rebels to do.
James Watt, a comforter of Burford who went to the White House when she announced her resignation, was in office only a short time when he told of one of his first meetings with the newly elected Reagan: "When I said, 'I want to do this, I want to do that,' he replied, 'Sic em.' "
As one of the unleashed, Burford bit hard but was bitten back harder. The contempt of Congress citation with which she was threatened toward the end was the result of the contempt she had for the political process from the beginning. She thought that EPA could be weakened from within, which is the illusory easy way for changing regulatory policy. The hard--and only--way is by gathering evidence that changes are needed, building a case, going to the committees of Congress and fighting to get amendments to the law.
Burford and her pack had no respect for this process. She went to Congress to argue against the clean air act and the clean water act. But the cases were weak and unpersuasive. Congress left the laws alone.
It wasn't only Congress and the environmentalists who were on to Burford's game from the beginning. Middle-level officials within EPA, the meddlesome in Ronald Reagan's view, saw her as a poor manager with no background in administration. One of these officials, who witnessed the gutting of his noise pollution program that he had worked on since 1976, remembered last week being astonished at how abruptly EPA's enforcement efforts were halted when Burford took over. It was a needless excess, he said. The sudden grinding of the brakes showered sparks.
Soon even industry noticed them. An October 1981 Chemical Week, a publication for the chemical industry, told of an agency "in disarray." An accompanying editorial titled "We Need a Credible EPA," expressed the belief that Burford's "style, unless she can temper it, may defeat her." It concluded with a worry about the "more sympathetic" agency: "Legal uncertainties aside, neither EPA nor industry can afford even the appearance that EPA is a captive of industry. We believe that the regulators ought to rethink some of the new procedures. And we believe that industry ought to choose to press its case in full view."
This call for political sophistication went unheeded. Burford's EPA eventually was seen as compulsively biased toward industry. The recent allegations of EPA sweetheart deals with polluters, conflict-of-interest cases involving cleanup delays and shredded subpoenaed documents appear as sudden volcanic explosions. But the inner rumblings--the "legal uncertainties" mentioned by Chemical Week--were detected from the beginning.
Ronald Reagan told Burford that she "can walk out of EPA with your head held high." This is sound advice: Only a highly held head can stay above the smelly fumes of turmoil that Burford and her staff, or ex-staff, created in so brief a time.
In fact, Burford's head is already high. It's in the clouds. She said in her resignation letter to Reagan that "we are, in this administration, for the first time, controlling the disposal of hazardous materials on America's land. We are, in this administration, for the first time, cleaning up the by-products of a chemical revolution."
For the first time? This is a slur on previous EPA administrators such as Douglas Costle, Russell Train and William Ruckelshaus. Does Burford believe these officials did nothing? Does she believe that until her cabal hit town the environment was without protection from the gunk and goop of industry?
Probably she does. She is captive to even stronger beliefs: that Reagan, as she said in her farewell letter, has a "strong commitment to the environmental goals of the people." Only days before, a public opinion poll revealed that by 2 to 1 citizens think Reagan cares more about protecting polluters than enforcing the laws against them.
If it understands that, the public can figure out that Burford's failure is really Reagan's failure. He put her up to it.