THE ENVIRONMENTAL Protection Agency has now told its staff to stop shredding subpoenaed documents, since it's illegal. That's progress. Meanwhile, it seems that the White House is anxiously trying to negotiate some sort of a compromise in the EPA's long struggle with the congressional subcommittees that want those papers.
We have a suggestion to offer: why not simply end the quarrel and the litigation by dumping all of those documents out on the table for Congress to read? The EPA's objections, to the effect that they would jeopardize future legal proceedings over toxic waste dumps, is implausible. These are not the kinds of cases that rely on surprise. In any event, in most of these cases, the EPA itself has been trying to negotiate directly with companies that engaged in dumping. Most of these cases also involve state and local authorities, and extensive public records. The secrets all seem to relate to the internal turmoil and maneuvering inside the EPA. Since that has severely affected the administration of the toxic waste law, Congress has a legitimate claim to know what's been going on.
This whole collision over internal documents and executive privilege arises from the new law authorizing the EPA to clean up dangerous chemical dumps. Several House subcommittees believe that the EPA has been inexcusably slow to get started, and has been inclined to negotiate settlements on terms excessively favorable to the dumpers.
The administration is not in a favorable position in this test of wills, as the White House apparently is beginning to realize. If it loses in court, the doctrine of privilege suffers an erosion of a kind that most presidents have found it wiser to avoid. If it wins in court on the constitutional issue, it will continue to have difficulty persuading the country that there's nothing to hide at EPA. The recent record there--the firings, the accusations and most recently the after-hours employment of the shredders --does not speak in behalf of good judgment at the agency. Anxiety about chemical dumps, and the character of the federal effort to clean them up, is not limited to congressmen. Some of their constituents, particularly those who happen to live near dumps, share their feelings.
Many of the House Democrats suspect that the EPA's internal papers may show more than simple mismanagement. Those doubts and suspicions deserve an authoritative answer. Whatever logic may have led the EPA's administrators originally to keep their paperwork private, the White House now has a much more urgent reason to make it public. It is the administration's best and most convincing way to demonstrate exactly what has or has not been done and, if there have been errors, to disassociate the White House from them.