The embattled Environmental Protection Agency was accused yesterday by a House committee chairman and by three EPA officials of manipulating for political purposes the agency's $1.6-billion fund for cleaning up the nation's most dangerous hazardous waste dumps.
The EPA officials, who requested anonymity, said that several toxic waste dumps were placed on an "election track" last fall, preventing any money from being spent on cleaning them up or prosecuting illegal dumping for fear it might help Democrats running in surrounding areas.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee, said yesterday that his panel is pursuing "strong evidence" that the Superfund has been "manipulated for political purposes" and that decisions to delay cleanup of certain dumps were not based on health and safety considerations.
The latest accusations came after a bitter battle over power and policy within EPA that has featured a constitutional confrontation with the executive branch over House subpoenas for documents, an unprecedented contempt citation for EPA Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch and the recent firing of EPA hazardous waste chief Rita M. Lavelle.
In other developments yesterday:
* EPA official Eugene Ingold became the third personal assistant to Lavelle to be dismissed by Gorsuch in the last two days.
* Presidential counselor Edwin Meese III said Gorsuch called him last week to tell him that she was firing Lavelle, whom Meese said he knew only slightly from his days in California. Meese said Gorsuch spoke mainly of Lavelle's internal conflicts with other EPA officials, not policy matters. "It was basically a decision that was made by Anne Gorsuch," Meese said.
* Dingell said he would seek subcommittee approval Thursday to subpoena 25 EPA employes after Gorsuch reversed an earlier agreement to allow them to be interviewed about hazardous waste cases. Gorsuch insisted that an EPA lawyer accompany each employe and that the interviews be recorded and sent to EPA, which Dingell said would have "a clear intimidating effect" on the employes.
* A Government Operations subcommittee yesterday became the fourth House panel to enter the fray against the EPA, asking the agency for all of Lavelle's memos and letters, her appointments calendar and a list of all the Superfund cases in which she or her staff participated.
* Justice Department attorneys said they have developed a proposed compromise to head off the related House effort to prosecute Gorsuch for contempt of Congress for withholding Superfund documents. Attorney General William French Smith discussed the plan with House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), sources said.
* Almost unnoticed in the furor, the EPA yesterday issued its long-awaited proposal for changing the permit regulations for hazardous waste sites. Under the proposal, the EPA would issue lifetime permits to the owners and operators of the sites instead of maximum 10-year permits that are subject to review when they expire.
The EPA said that the change, worked out last year at a private meeting with industry officials, would save companies more than $88 million while reducing the public's ability to inspect the sites.
After Lavelle was fired by President Reagan on Monday, many EPA officials were quick to say that she had numerous enemies throughout the agency and that she was known as a woman with a temper who liked to make her power felt.
Lavelle had an open enmity, for example, with general counsel Robert M. Perry over the running of the Superfund program, and spoke openly of wanting to get him fired, according to two officials.
Meanwhile, Lavelle's devotees at EPA said she was being made a "fall guy" by being depicted as someone who was too cozy with polluters. But these Lavelle advocates, who insisted on remaining anonymous, argued that Lavelle's industry ties were no greater than those of other top agency officials, including Gorsuch.
"Rita, I'm afraid, tended to identify more with the industry position in her own mind," said one of her critics. "It's hard to say how she crossed the line, though. She enjoyed having lunch and dinner with industry representatives. You do that, but people usually do it equal time with public interest groups."
The Dingell subcommittee is focusing on the agency's handling of the Stringfellow Acid Pits, a high-priority waste disposal site in Lavelle's home state of California.
The EPA held up a planned $6.1 million Superfund grant to clean up Stringfellow during the fall campaign, and some officials said the delay was meant to avoid aiding Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., then California governor and Democratic Senate candidate.
William Hedeman, director of EPA's Superfund program, yesterday denied that politics influenced the agency's decision on Stringfellow or other hazardous waste dumps.
He said he had never heard the term, "election track," and added: "From my vantage point, I can categorically deny that any such system existed." He said EPA delayed spending money to clean up the Stringfellow site "because we discovered the names of a large number of responsible parties in mid-September" and could then seek damages from them.
Lavelle had worked as a public information officer for Aerojet-General Corp. of La Jolla, Calif., which dumped some of the wastes at the Stringfellow site. Lavelle disqualified herself from the case last June 18 after several of her colleagues complained about a possible conflict of interest, according to EPA sources.
These sources said that Lavelle was involved in decisions on Stringfellow before her recusal, and afterward sat in on meetings where the site was discussed.
Although he did not name Lavelle directly, Dingell said yesterday there was "strong evidence . . . that officials of EPA may have continued to exercise control and placement in the decision-making process after they said they were recusing themselves because of real or potential conflicts of interest."
The oversight panel repeatedly has been denied access to Lavelle's files and other EPA documents on hazardous waste enforcement. In recent months, sources say, EPA officials denied the existence of numerous documents on Stringfellow and other hazardous waste cases, only to discover them later when they were given the dates. EPA is still withholding the documents.