President Reagan yesterday fired Rita M. Lavelle, the Environmental Protection Agency official in charge of hazardous wastes, after a bitter battle over power and policy in the agency.
In a one-sentence statement, three days after EPA Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch announced Lavelle's resignation, the White House said Lavelle's appointment was "terminated . . . at the direction of the president."
Gorsuch also fired two of Lavelle's top aides, chief of staff Warren C. (Chip) Wood and special assistant Susan Baldyga.
The action grows out of bizarre infighting at EPA over personalities, personnel, and whether the agency is cracking down too hard on companies dumping toxic wastes, according to agency sources.
But the controversy is seen differently by environmentalists and members of Congress, who have strongly criticized the agency's enforcement of the new and largely untested "Superfund" law designed to clean up hazardous waste dumps.
These groups have accused the agency of pandering to the chemical industry, dragging its feet on enforcement and refusing to disburse millions of dollars in cleanup funds authorized by Congress.
Lavelle's office at the Waterside Mall was guarded over the weekend to prevent her from removing any files, according to Rusty Brashear, an EPA spokesman. A security officer remained on watch yesterday.
Agency sources said as many as 10 more of her aides are expected to be dismissed.
Lavelle could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Gorsuch asked for Lavelle's resignation Friday, according to several senior EPA officials, after she saw the draft of a Lavelle memo to the White House that sharply criticized the agency's general counsel, Robert Perry.
The draft, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, accused Perry of "systematically alienating the primary constituents of this administration, the business community."
The draft, which is in the form of notes and was never sent to the White House, also criticized Perry for what it calls his attempts to "scuttle" negotiated settlements with chemical companies responsible for three of the nation's worst toxic waste dumps. Referring to one case, Lavelle's memo said, "he resisted settlement throughout, opting always for litigation."
One of the three is Waukegan Harbor, Ill., where discharges from the Outboard Marine Corp. have contaminated the harbor with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
The case has been under litigation since 1978, and the EPA has been negotiating with Outboard Marine and Monsanto Chemical Corp., which manufactured the PCBs, to foot the bill for the costs of the cleanup, estimated in 1980 at $14 million.
Lavelle's draft memo said Outboard Marine and Monsanto "were persuaded by RML Lavelle that EPA might seriously consider a new settlement offer." But when attorneys for the companies arranged a meeting with Perry, he "rejected the first proposal and seriously alienated the companies (according to them)."
EPA's regional office in Chicago said the case was still under negotiation and "it would not be out of the ordinary" for a headquarters official to enter discussions. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which also has been involved in the case, confirmed that "there was conversation" between the companies and Lavelle.
The draft memo also referred to the Chem-Dyne Corp. dumpsite in Hamilton, Ohio, where last August EPA announced a major settlement involving voluntary agreements from 112 companies to contribute a total of $2.3 million for surface cleanup. At the same time, EPA filed a lawsuit against 16 other firms which refused to accept the settlement proposal.
The case was heralded by the EPA as a "landmark" settlement that proved that the administration was strongly enforcing the nation's toxic waste laws. Critics, however, noted that the cleanup covered surface contamination only, and that the 112 companies which settled, for an average of just over $20,000 each, will face no further liability if contamination later is found in groundwater or sub-surface soil.
EPA officials said that Perry had criticized Lavelle for her handling of the Stringfellow Acid Pits, a high-priority waste disposal site in California. According to those sources, Lavelle had worked as a public information officer for Aerojet-General Corp. of La Jolla, Calif., the source of some of the wastes in the dump.
Although Lavelle wrote a letter last June 18 withdrawing herself from any decisions involving Stringfellow, EPA sources said she was involved in decisions before her recusal and afterward sat in on meetings where the site was discussed.
Penny Newman, a leader of Concerned Neighbors in Action, a California citizens group that has worked on Stringfellow, charged yesterday that Lavelle was involved in the decision last year to cover the site with a coating of clay rather than require a more expensive cleanup.
Lavelle's ouster removes from the Environmental Protection Agency the official generally believed to have the closest ties to the White House.
Lavelle is a friend of White House counselor Edwin Meese III and served on Reagan's personal staff when he was governor of California.
Her firing also comes less than a week before the scheduled start of an administrative law hearing expected to focus on her role in the alleged harassment of an agency whistleblower, Hugh Kaufman. The Kaufman case was at the root of a perjury investigation of Lavelle by a House Science and Technology subcommittee. In sworn testimony before the panel, Lavelle denied having ordered an investigation of the whistleblower or saying she wanted him fired. The subcommittee later obtained evidence from two government officials that she had done both.
An aide to Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the subcommittee, said that a high-level EPA official representing the White House approached subcommittee staff members last month and asked if Scheuer would be willing to drop his efforts to seek prosecution of Lavelle on perjury charges if she resigned.
Through the aide, Scheuer sent word that he would drop his efforts if she were no longer in that job. Last week, the official notified Scheuer's staff that the matter would be "resolved shortly," the aide said.
However, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) said that he does not plan to drop his investigation into "allegations that the distribution of Superfund money has been manipulated for political purposes, and we are investigating allegations of misconduct and unethical behavior by an agency official." Dingell warned Gorsuch of his intent in a letter last week.
Gorsuch is embroiled in an unprecedented contempt-of-Congress charge because of her refusal, under Reagan's orders, to provide Congress with documents dealing with toxic waste cleanup cases under the Superfund. The EPA contends that the documents involve sensitive legal negotiations, and Reagan has said they are protected by executive privilege.
Among the documents that Gorsuch has refused to turn over Dingell's committee are some dealing with the Stringfellow site. EPA sources have said that Dingell is looking into allegations that Gorsuch held up funding on the Stringfellow cleanup because she did not want to assist then-governor Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. in his campaign for the Senate last year.
Dingell has also warned Gorsuch that he plans to investigate the "veracity" of Perry's testimony before his committee concerning the practice at EPA of collecting negative information on employes that is stored in personnel files. Perry was not available for comment yesterday.