A special assistant to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch admitted yesterday in a House subcommittee hearing that he informed a paint manufacturer of EPA's strategy during negotiations for cleaning up a toxic dump site in California.
Rep. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), who chaired the hearing on the EPA's enforcement record, called the action by Thornton Field "highly improper conduct for a government official."
Field, special assistant to the administrator for hazardous waste, told Gore he had permission from EPA enforcement counsel William G. Sullivan to tell Inmont Corp. that EPA's bottom line on the company's financial liability was $700,000. EPA attorneys were, at the time, asking Inmont to commit $850,000.
Gore also read a court document from Coastal States Petroleum Co. claiming that Sullivan told it a federal case charging its Corpus Christi refinery with violating the Clean Water Act was without merit. Assistant U.S. attorney Frances H. Stacey went to court earlier this year to stop communication between Coastal and EPA.
Sullivan denied wrongdoing in the Coastal States case but declined to comment on it, noting that he would be filing a deposition in a few weeks.
Gore raised the two incidents to illustrate what he called EPA's "utterly disastrous" performance in enforcing environmental laws. "The law is not being enforced. As a result, the law is not being obeyed," said Gore.
According to EPA figures, the overall number of civil enforcement actions referred from the regional offices to EPA headquarters dropped by 79 percent from 313 cases in 1980 to 66 cases in 1981. The number of cases EPA sent to the Justice Department dropped from 252 cases to 69 cases--69 percent--after the Reagan administration took office.
The drop has been particularly acute in hazardous waste enforcement. In 1980, 43 cases charging violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act were filed, in contrast to seven filed last year and none this year.
EPA has yet to issue regulations requiring persons who release large amounts of hazardous waste to inform the National Response Center. The requirement is a crucial tool of the Superfund, a trust fund established in 1980 to clean up toxic dump sites.
Christopher J. Capper, acting assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, noted in a September memo that "industry groups are advising members not to report any but the most serious releases" until the rules are published. Capper said yesterday he expects rules to be proposed in the spring.
EPA's criminal enforcement is also deficient, according to Gore. Although the program was announced last November, EPA has hired only three of the 25 attorneys called for and is, in fact, still working on the job descriptions, according to Robert M. Perry, associate administrator for legal and enforcement counsel and general counsel.
Sullivan and Perry said enforcement actions have been delayed by reorganization efforts. Gore suggested that the elimination last year of the hazardous waste enforcement task force teams accounted for the dramatic drop in referrals from the regional offices.
Gore criticized the creation of "yet another task force" formed in the past few days to again review the agency's enforcement structure. EPA sources say privately the review was prompted by the promotion of Perry over Sullivan to resolve a turf battle between the office of the general counsel and the enforcement office.
One of Perry's first tasks was to issue a memo on March 29 in which he "rescinded" all "delegations of authority" to Sullivan and required his own approval on all enforcement decisions. Enforcement attorneys predict Sullivan's departure, and as a result more uncertainty and delay in enforcement efforts. Sullivan declined to comment on the matter.