Senators from both parties raised the stakes in the controversy over the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday, accusing Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch of seeking to dismantle her agency and undermining federal laws through budget cuts and mismanagement.
In a combative hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Gorsuch blamed "political harassment" by publicity-hungry Democrats and environmentalists for the escalating charges of wrongdoing in the agency, particularly in the embattled hazardous waste program.
"Nobody can be that wrong all that much all the time," Gorsuch said of the charges. "Personally, I have to finally judge that a great deal of it is political harassment . . . to harass, delay, destroy and finally stop administration policies . The thing that makes me very upset is that this type of harassment will probably impede our progress in our goal of cleaning up America."
But Republican and Democratic members of the Senate committee, which summoned Gorsuch to testify on EPA's 1984 budget proposal, said they viewed the hazardous waste controversy as only one "deeply troubling" aspect of the Reagan administration's environmental record, criticizing personnel shake-ups and deep budget cuts in enforcement and pollution control programs.
These criticisms came as EPA officials revealed in a separate House hearing that the FBI is investigating the shredding of documents in the agency's hazardous waste division, which is now a target in probes by six House and Senate subcommittees.
The congressional investigations involve charges of conflict of interest, mismanagement and political favoritism in the running of the EPA's $1.6 billion fund for cleaning up the nation's most dangerous hazardous waste dumps.
The investigations have intensified following last week's firing of Rita M. Lavelle, former chief of the hazardous waste program.
The senators went beyond just the hazardous waste program, however.
"The reason problems have surfaced in the hazardous waste program is this turmoil in personnel--resignations, discharges, failure of someone to accept a position once an investigation into his background is started, two associate administrators' positions still unfilled," said Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.).
"It gives an atmosphere to the agency that there isn't a firm hand in charge and it isn't going where it ought to go," Chafee continued. "I think you should get this agency settled down because we all want it to succeed."
Committee Chairman Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.) told Gorsuch that his panel will probably reject her budget proposal as too low, particularly in funds for enforcement programs to prosecute polluters and for scientific research.
"This reduction of resources, this pattern of inaction raises the serious and profoundly disturbing question whether we are witnessing a systematic attempt to dismantle the agency. . . against the very clearly expressed wishes of the Congress and the American people," said another committee member, Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine).
Gorsuch responded that the EPA had compiled "a solid record of fundamental achievements" under her stewardship and that administration proposals for deeper budget cuts--including a 45 percent reduction in funds for pollution control since she took office--would allow continued "environmental progress."
The administration's $3.6 billion budget proposal for the EPA would still leave the United States with the largest budget for environmental protection of any country in the world, she said.
"If that is true, it is irrelevant," Mitchell shot back. "We care for the quality of our air and water based on the needs of the American people, not by what they may be doing in the Soviet Union."
Only one of the five Republican committee members who attended the hearing spoke out in defense of Gorsuch, and the other four GOP members skipped the hearing. Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) complimented Gorsuch on the agency's completion of new regulations to control public exposure to nuclear waste and on several research advances.
"I admire you for being accessible in this time of stuff that swirls around your head and around your agency," Simpson told the EPA chief. "I think you're a gutsy lady."
An administration official said "nobody in the White House is really happy" with the way the EPA has handled the spreading controversy.
A second official said, however, that President Reagan told a small group of senior aides yesterday that he plans to stand by Gorsuch.
The White House has attempted since the firing of Lavelle to contain the controversy surrounding the agency.
White House counsel Fred F. Fielding offered last week to show the House hundreds of EPA documents that Reagan had previously ordered withheld under a claim of executive privilege.
House leaders were to respond today to the offer, which the White House hopes will resolve the historic contempt-of-Congress case against Gorsuch. The House voted the contempt citation in December when Gorsuch refused to surrender the documents, arguing that releasing them would jeopardize enforcement efforts against polluters.
Asked to explain the controversy, Gorsuch told the Senate committee: "It's fairly easy to explain. There are 535 members of Congress, some of whom think the most important contribution they can make is to get in the national news media. And there's an easy way to do it. All you have to do is call Anne Gorsuch and ask her to copy every piece of paper on her Superfund program."
Stafford said afterward that his committee's oversight subcommittee, chaired by Chafee, will investigate the charges of wrongdoing surrounding the Superfund, which he helped create.
"Until that investigation is complete, I'll confine myself to saying I am disturbed about what I hear," Stafford said.
Gorsuch came under fire during the hearing for budget proposals that would reduce the agency's operating funds in 1984 by 30 percent compared to the level when she took over.
Republicans and Democrats also sharply criticized her plans to cut assistance to states by 26 percent, at the same time that she and her aides are transferring more pollution control responsibility to them.
The EPA budget for next year also proposes to reduce current funding for programs to protect water quality by 30 percent, air quality by 10.9 percent and drinking water by 15.1 percent, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Mitchell said such budget policies are responsible for mobilizing every major national environmental group in opposition to the Reagan administration, to which Gorsuch responded: "I am an environmentalist, and a strong one."
One of the few light moments came when Chafee opened the hearing by telling Gorsuch: "I wish to congratulate you. I understand you were married last Saturday."
Gorsuch laughed and responded: "Thank you, senator. But that, like so many other rumors floating around EPA, is untrue. I'm to be married next Sunday," to Robert Burford, an assistant to Interior Secretary James G. Watt.
"Oh," said Chafee.