Congressional leaders of both parties accused President Reagan yesterday of staffing his administration with officials who oppose environmental laws they are supposed to enforce.
John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), chairman of the Senate environmental pollution subcommittee, and House Interior Committee Chairman Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) said on "Meet the Press" (NBC, WRC) that problems plaguing the Environmental Protection Agency should be blamed on Reagan, rather than on subordinates such as EPA Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch, who changed her last name to Burford when she was married yesterday, and Rita M. Lavelle, the assistant she fired.
"The president ran on a certain platform. He appointed these people who are enunciating his views," said Chafee, a prominent environmentalist. "They aren't my views, they aren't the views of many of the Republicans in the Senate and House, and I don't think they're always the views of the American people."
"Basically, we're seeing the outcome of an administration which doesn't believe in the environment, which has made war on the environment and which has people administering these key laws that don't believe in them," said Udall, a leading conservationist in the House.
White House officials forcefully disputed the charges, echoed yesterday by other congressmen investigating the EPA.
But the accusations reflect the way the controversy over the agency's hazardous waste cleanup program has focused the debate on Reagan's environmental policies and produced political problems for the White House.
"We want to protect the environment. That's precisely where the president stands," said Edwin L. Harper, Reagan's assistant for policy development, in response to the statements by Chafee and Udall. "Sometimes when it comes down into the specifics of laws and regulations, the consensus is a lot less clear on specifically what ought to be done."
For two years, environmentalists denounced administration efforts to relax federal regulations on air and water pollution, on certain cancer-causing chemicals, strip mining and development of pristine federal lands. They also assailed budget cuts in enforcement programs against polluters, and the industry ties of a wide range of EPA and Interior Department officials who enforce environmental laws.
Until recently, administration officials said, the White House tended to dismiss the political impact of attacks from environmentalists, even though groups such as the Sierra Club reported a doubling of membership and credited the surge to a backlash against Interior Secretary James G. Watt and Burford.
The White House became concerned late last year when its election polls showed that while voters wanted less government, they were willing to pay more for environmental and health protection. The polls also showed a growing perception among voters that the administration was anti-environment.
"We knew people wanted the government off their backs, but what the White House failed to see initially was that those feelings didn't go across the board," a senior administration official said. "We've been trying to get the message out ever since that we do have a record of environmental progress, but we're really paying."
Until the controversy over hazardous waste enforcement, the official said, the environmental debate had been cast as a largely philosophical dispute about how much the federal government should regulate polluters.
But the waste cleanup controversy took on explosive dimensions in part because of the suggestion of cover-ups: the administraton's initial refusal to provide House investigators with hundreds of EPA documents, reports that certain records in the hazardous waste program were shredded and Lavelle's refusal to accept House subpoenas for her testimony.
Recent disclosures about the industry ties of Lavelle, who ran the EPA's hazardous waste cleanup program until she was fired Feb. 7, also gave new focus to charges that administration officials are too close to industry to protect the environment and public health.
"Here's a woman whose job was to enforce this law and stop the dumping of deadly toxic wastes," Udall said yesterday. "And the high point of her day was: which polluter are you going to have lunch with today? I think it's shocking."
It was reported last week that Lavelle frequently was treated to expensive meals by executives of chemical companies under investigation by her staff.
Six congressional subcommittees are investigating charges of political favoritism, conflicts of interest and mismanagement in the EPA's $1.6 billion "Superfund" program to clean up toxic waste dumps. Reagan has agreed to show one of the subcommittees documents he had withheld under a claim of executive privilege and has ordered a Justice Department probe into all accusations of wrongdoing.
Administration officials have said they know of no criminal wrongdoing, arguing that the issue has been exaggerated.
Udall, Chafee and several congressmen investigating the EPA said their concern goes beyond hazardous wastes because numerous environmental policy makers have industry ties. They include EPA's chief of toxic chemicals, John A. Todhunter, a former science adviser to industry; Watt, an attorney who represented coal and oil interests, and Burford, whose former top adviser, attorney James W. Sanderson, represents a hazardous waste disposal company that has benefited from several EPA policy shifts.
Udall said he has little confidence in the Justice Department investigation because "Justice is like Interior and EPA. The people who run it don't believe in it."
"It would be a serious mistake for the Congress to focus all its energies on an investigation of the shredders or Miss Lavelle," said George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "The problem is the environmental policy of this administration, and I believe the American people will be dismayed and appalled once they focus on it."
Udall said the administration's widespread environmental policy shifts have also concerned business leaders "because there's uncertainty. They don't know which way to turn, and most businessmen have come around to believing that good environmentalism is good business."
Democratic Reps. John D. Dingell (Mich.), James J. Florio (N.J.) and James H. Scheuer (N.Y.), who chair three of the House subcommittees investigating the hazardous waste program, said they expect further confrontations with the administration over EPA documents.
They said they do not feel that the administration went far enough in its agreement to show documents to a House subcommittee headed by Elliott H. Levitas (D-Ga.). Some documents will be edited, and congressmen must make special requests to see the missing portions, according to the agreement.
"This has a real potential for mischief," Dingell said. "When congressional subcommittees inquire into a matter, they should not be compelled to face the type of stonewalling that we have faced here."
Meanwhile, Chafee disclosed that Lavelle will testify Wednesday before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has announced plans to investigate the hazardous waste cleanup program.
Sources close to Lavelle said she wants to appear first before the Republican-controlled Senate panel rather than before two House subcommittees that subpoenaed her last week.
Lavelle declined acceptance of the subpoenas last week by not answering her door, according to committee aides.
Chafee stressed that his panel will conduct a complete and aggressive investigation, but Dingell called it "very curious that she's rushing to a committee that has not inquired deeply into this matter and is avoiding a House committee that has been investigating it for months."