The way the folks from the Environmental Protection Agency tell it, the shredders "showed up," sort of like the wooden horse at the gates of besieged Troy.
The Trojans regarded their steed as a gift from the Greeks. The adage "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts" had not then been coined, so the curious and greedy Trojans let it in, with dreadful results. The horse was full of Greek warriors who sacked the city.
The EPA shredders were also a gift, it seems. But it was compassion that got them through the gates of the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. A procurement officer, Nancy Collins, got stuck with a couple she had mistakenly ordered for another division, and in her anxiety to unload them called a pal, a GS7 in OSWER and begged her to take them off her hands. The kindly Seven, without a word from her superiors, agreed to give the grinders a home.
Once they "appeared," the shredders became as popular as video games. "A toy" is how one EPA official described them to a skeptical House Public Works and Transportation Committee.
"Some people just wanted to see how they worked," said another, who described how playful secretaries and clerks fed them paper from the nearby copying machine just to see what they would spit out. The copying machine didn't work, by the way, which tells you quite a bit about where the EPA is coming from these days.
Like Troy, it is under heavy siege. Adminstrator Anne M. Gorsuch has been charged with contempt of Congress for failing to turn over documents relating to the $1.6 billion toxic waste "Superfund," which is supposed to clean up 418 dangerous toxic dump sites, and so far has gotten around to five.
Members of the House committee are trying to find out what the shredders shredded, beyond the credibility of the agency. Now that it has been explained to them, EPA officials can see what a mistake it was to take in the shredders, how people might suspect that minions of the formidable Gorsuch have been busy destroying evidence against her.
But, they protest, this is not the case. A panel of them testified one by one, although not from firsthand knowledge, that no subpoenaed documents were chewed up by their new "toys," which incidentally were taken away after they were discovered by two investigators from the committee.
They cannot say, mind you, what documents were destroyed. No logs were kept, and nobody has any idea of who played with the "toys" at night or over weekends. But they are sure about what was not destroyed, because the subpoenaed documents are under "hands-on" protection at the agency, even though, they admit that the seal on one of the boxes has been broken.
Eugene Lucero, director of enforcement in the Office of Solid Waste, offered by way of proof that nothing major was shredded signed statements from 50 employes in his office. He also got statements from two college interns, and needs only the word of two "stay-in-school" high school interns, who also are allowed to see papers which are denied to Congress, to clinch the case.
"We generate tons of waste paper every day," said John Daniel, EPA chief of staff.
But the EPA generates a unique breed of federal document. They have an "enforcement-sensitive" designation, something dreamed up after the papers were subpoenaed and President Reagan forbade their release, by EPA general counsel Robert Perry, whose manner with the committee was that of a casket salesman with a distraught widow--"we want to cooperate in every way we can," he said soothingly.
Supposedly "enforcement-sensitive" means a document that would give away secret strategies for making polluting corporations cough up donations for cleanup, or plans for prosecuting them if they resist. Only one criminal case has been brought by the Reagan administration.
There are, nonetheless, some 785,000 "enforcement-sensitive" documents, and nine boxes of candidates haven't even been looked at yet. They undoubtedly include subpoenaed documents. Congress doesn't know for sure, because it can't see anything. Many are in the files of EPA regional offices, which may or may not have shredders. Nobody at headquarters has asked.
Hour after hour, the bureaucrats passed the buck up and down the witness table--"I am going to ask Mr. Lucero on this," or "I will yield to Mr. Steele on that." It was a spectacle that confirmed Reagan's worst fears about government workers as paper-shufflers and time-servers.
Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.) said that as a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence he regularly sees sensitive documents from the CIA without subpoenas.
"I don't understand what you have to hide," he said.
Neither does anybody else. But since the shredders "showed up," everybody's pretty sure it is something quite toxic.