The Reagan administration moved on several fronts yesterday to try to contain the controversy surrounding the Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch said at a news conference that her agency's hazardous waste cleanup program has been aggressive and free of politics or conflicts of interest. Gorsuch said she fired Rita M. Lavelle, former chief of the EPA's hazardous waste program, in part because she had sent the opposite message to industry.
At the same time, White House chief of staff James A. Baker III called Rep. Elliott H. Levitas (D-Ga.), chairman of a House subcommittee investigating the EPA, to notify him that the administration plans to propose a compromise to settle the congressional contempt case against Gorsuch for her refusal to turn over subpoenaed documents about EPA's hazardous waste cleanup efforts.
White House counsel Fred F. Fielding said last night that his office is "looking at the dimensions of all the issues" of the EPA affair, including Lavelle's stormy departure from the agency and congressional accusations of conflicts of interest and possible perjury by Lavelle and others in connection with a wide range of EPA actions.
A fifth House subcommittee said yesterday that it also will investigate possible mishandling of the EPA's $1.6 billion Superfund for cleaning up the nation's worst hazardous waste dumps.
Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), chairman of the subcommittee on commerce, transportation and tourism, wrote Gorsuch yesterday that the growing accusations about the hazardous waste program prompted him to probe cleanup and prosecution efforts at 17 of the worst dumps in his home state.
"I must be assured through independent investigation that this vital program has not been subverted by political or special-interest consideration," Florio said.
Congressional leaders also suggested that the administration no longer can assert its claim of executive privilege to withhold subpoenaed documents on hazardous waste cleanup--the heart of the historic contempt-of-Congress case against Gorsuch--because President Reagan has not seen the documents.
Levitas, chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation oversight subcommittee, which brought the contempt citation against Gorsuch, said the administration's case is "collapsing." He cited a 1977 Supreme Court ruling saying that executive privilege applies "at most to items with which the president was personally familiar."
Fielding said the administration believes it has met the requirements of this ruling even though Reagan has seen only an index of the dozens of documents Gorsuch has refused to deliver for a House inquiry into the EPA's handling of the Superfund.
After a review of the subpoenaed documents by the EPA, Justice Department and White House officials, Fielding said, Gorsuch was ordered to keep secret those the administration claimed could be used to jeopardize cases against polluters.
Baker's call to Levitas marked his first entry into efforts to compromise with the House on the contempt dispute. Other officials had proposed allowing Congress to see some disputed documents, but Levitas, citing growing concern about the Superfund, said, "Anything short of full access [to the documents] is unacceptable." He said Baker told him to expect the newest proposal Friday.
Fielding said the president directed that any documents showing wrongdoing should not be withheld, but might be referred to law enforcement agencies instead. Gorsuch said yesterday that she knew of no such documents.
But Gorsuch declined when asked to say whether she knew of any improprieties by Lavelle, who has been accused of illegal harassment of a "whistle blower" on her staff and of lying about it before another House subcommittee. Lavelle could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts to contact her this week.
In a personal memo revealed this week, Lavelle called the business community "the primary constituents of this administration" and accused EPA's general counsel of being too tough on industry.
Gorsuch, attempting to impose order on the chaos racking her agency, said at yesterday's news conference, "I don't view the business community as our main constituents. I view the American people as our major constituents."
There was further confirmation yesterday that Lavelle took part in EPA meetings on whether the agency should help private firms pay for cleaning up chemical wastes they deposited at the Stringfellow Acid Pits dump in Riverside, Calif., even after she withdrew in writing from the case because of a possible conflict of interest.
Lavelle was urged to disqualify herself by EPA general counsel Robert M. Perry, according to an agency official familiar with the case. Lavelle's former employer, Aerojet General Corp., was one of more than 100 companies that dumped poisonous wastes at the site and could be held liable for damages.
But Perry's staff told him that Lavelle continued to participate in meetings where Stringfellow was discussed and was asked to leave them at least two times, according to the official.
Gorsuch said yesterday that Reagan acted at her request Monday in firing Lavelle, who worked for two chemical companies in California before joining Aerojet. "I frankly came to lack the confidence in her ability to discharge her responsibilities under this very important program," Gorsuch told reporters.
In California yesterday, officials named one of Aerojet's plants as the state's second most dangerous hazardous waste site. California's attorney general sued Aerojet in 1979, charging that the firm had intentionally and negligently allowed an industrial chemical called trichloroethylene to leak into the ground water at the firm's 8,000-acre facility in Sacramento.
The state is seeking $35,000 a day in damages from Aerojet over a 15-year span. Deputy Attorney General Joel Moskowitz said the extent of the damage has not been determined, but that nearby drinking water sources have been contaminated and several wells had to be shut down. "This may be the most expensive cleanup ever," he said.
Tom Sprague, a spokesman for Aerojet, which built rocket jets at the site, said the firm is cooperating with state officials and already has spent $10 million cleaning up the property. He said the aerospace company, which had $564 million in sales last year, is not seeking federal money for the cleanup under EPA's Superfund because "We are doing this ourselves . . . . We are taking care of the past and making sure our current techniques don't create any future problems."
EPA general counsel Perry had argued against Lavelle, according to one agency official, and insisted that the EPA should sue industrial polluters to ensure that cleanup orders could be enforced. Perry contended, according to the official, that Lavelle was too willing to accommodate companies that wanted to settle the disputes quietly with her office.
Gorsuch said yesterday she wanted to make clear that "my policy has been and will continue to be to require a strong enforcement policy," which she said is also Perry's policy.
Gorsuch also said she had not heard of an "election-track" system at the EPA under which the agency deferred paying for the cleanup of certain dumps until after the Nov. 2 general election.
Three EPA officials said earlier this week that the cleanup of Stringfellow was delayed last fall for fear it might help the Senate campaign of then-California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. The officials said Brown might have tried to claim credit for obtaining the federal funds and launching the cleanup of the hazardous site.
"Political considerations have not driven any decisions" in the hazardous waste program, Gorsuch said. Asked about her personal role in the Stringfellow delay, Gorsuch said it took time for the EPA to figure out how much California should be required to pay toward the cleanup, and whether the agency should put the money up front or try to sue the polluters first to pay for the cleanup.