The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee yesterday halted action on environmental legislation in order to hold hearings two weeks from now on the state of affairs within the turbulent Environmental Protection Agency and on the nationwide effects of proposed EPA budget cuts.
A copy of the EPA's 1983 budget proposals indicates that the reductions in operating funds are $216,447,000, or about 18 percent below President Reagan's 1982 request. Full-time staff under the remaining $975 million operating budget would be reduced from the current 10,381 to 8,340, a 20 percent slash.
One of the most striking cuts would be a 50 percent chop in funds for enforcing air-pollution rules for stationary sources such as industrial plants.
Administration critics have worried that such cuts could mean that the EPA cannot enforce the environmental laws of the past decade. In scheduling the Oct. 15 hearing, environment committee Chairman Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.) said major cuts "would deeply impair all the functions" of the EPA and would "deeply distress" him.
"We'd better stop legislating and see where we're at," he said. Sen. Jennings Randolph (D-W.Va.), ranking minority member on the environment committee, said in a letter to Stafford that new legislation should cease until the committee could "determine if the agency has the ability or the will to carry out these programs."
The action comes at a time when EPA administrator Anne M. Gorsuch is under fire from within the EPA for what some senior staff members have called overly political decision-making.
White House officials also have expressed concern that she has not managed to convince key political and industrial supporters of the administration that she has their interests in mind.
As if to illustrate that point, President Reagan and Vice President Bush jumped into the arena yesterday to back Gorsuch's push for revisions the administration wants in the controversial Clean Air Act.
Reagan wrote to Stafford urging speedy action on the measure, and Bush met with Stafford, Gorsuch and Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) to press the same message. This led to speculation that Bush might be replacing Gorsuch as the administration's voice on the bill.
EPA spokesman Byron Nelson, however, said Bush had only been brought in "to lend his weight to the matter and to illustrate the high priority it has," and that Gorsuch would continue as the key administration voice on air-pollution policy.
Stafford said he got the impression during the meeting that Gorsuch remained the lead actor, and a spokesman for Bush said he was acting in his capacity as regulatory reform chief.
On the House side, Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.) joined the debate over Gorsuch, saying in an interview that his government operations subcommittee staff had been forced to threaten Gorsuch with a subpoena to get her to appear at an Oct. 21 hearing.
"I can't understand why they at EPA are in such a confrontational spirit," he said.
The hearing will concern what Moffett called the "lack of even token progress" on implementing legislation aimed at controlling toxic wastes and on issuing regulations for building waste-disposal sites.
Hazardous substance control efforts, including the massive Superfund site cleanup bill, are chief among new EPA programs that will strain the reduced agency work force and resources as the programs begin to go into effect.
Nelson noted that Moffett had asked Gorsuch to discuss 13 subjects. "It takes time to get that together," he said.
At the same time, Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.) released a General Accounting Office report saying that the EPA's overall toxic-control effort "provides little assurance that public health and the environment are protected."
At least 8,300 known hazardous waste treatment, storage or disposal sites have not been registered under the law, and they have not been pursued, the report said.
Nearly all of a sampling of registered sites were found out of compliance with regulations, and any final regulations for them are at least eight years away, Florio said.