Ronald Reagan was governor of California when that state successfully implemented the nation's toughest environmental laws, backed down the auto industry, forced the cleanup of municipal and industrial wastes and began protection of the California coastline. California under Reagan's stewardship moved aggressively. Congressional committees made pilgrimages to hear firsthand how federal laws might be shaped to mirror California's success. State environmental officials shuttled back and forth to Washington, first to testify, then to take charge of national pollution control programs. That was more than a decade ago.

On Wednesday, Ronald Reagan stood in front of the rubble of the Environmental Protection Agency and defended its "splendid record" under Anne Gorsuch.

And he emphasized, "I can no longer insist on executive privilege" to cloak documents concerning the management of the Superfund "if there's a suspicion in the minds of people that maybe it is being used to cover some wrongdoing."

Well, there is a suspicion. We know some of the facts. We suspect a lot more have been covered up.

We know Anne Gorsuch has done at least a decade's worth of damage to the agency in just two years. And she may yet do permanent damage to the nation's bipartisan environmental consensus.

The Reagan EPA has reached that sour stage where even its good works--and there have been precious few--will be regarded cynically by regulated industries and by the people whose health EPA is charged with protecting.

The bright young men and women with an interest in the environment no longer come to the agency for entry-level jobs. There is no hiring anyway. Many of the high caliber staff, especially at the top management level, are gone.

Gorsuch's new budget calls for 8,000 permanent staff positions, down 3,000 in three budget years. The budget is down 30 percent in constant dollars. The budget for research and development is at its lowest in EPA's history. States are being asked to assume more responsibility in the mid-1980s, while grants to states are being cut to mid-1970s levels.

An estimated 90 percent of regulatory actions are behind schedule. Enforcement actions are down by more than half from 1980. Cases filed during the Carter years are being settled out of court, a process that conveniently avoids the development of legal precedents for use by future victims.

Maybe the people who run EPA today already have so little faith in government that the death of an agency is of little consequence--just one less roadblock in the way of unfettered "progress." But the loss of EPA is more painful to those of us who care about government, who worked through Republican and Democratic administrations in the belief that while our policies differed, we shared a common purpose.

Rita Lavelle may prove a public servant after all, because her firing has set the ball of twine unraveling. A dozen internal investigations are already under way at EPA, and a host of external probes are just beginning. There may be some "sweetheart deals" in the toxics program. Certainly the administration has been openly advocating them as part of its environmental policy. New allegations of fraud, perjury, lies, ineptitude and double-dealing may come to light. The extraordinary thing is that so much has happened in full view in the past two years. It is an irony of Washington life that we needed the titillation of a petty personal squabble, a bout of bureaucratic mud-wrestling, to put the scent of scandal in the air and prompt policy questions the country should have been asking for months. What we are now realizing, thanks to Rita Lavelle, is that Anne Gorsuch has kept her word. She set out to emasculate EPA and leave only a facade that polluters could hide behind, claiming "full compliance with EPA regulations." Given the institutional inertia so frustrating to every administration, she has been remarkably successful, for two reasons.

First, a national fascination with James Watt's self-caricature gave her political cover.

Second, she has an absolutely clear idea of her goals and beliefs, and the blessing of the White

House. In a town that shades everything

gray, she sees only in black and white.

Thus she can aggressively oppose a

speedup of the floundering toxic air

pollution program even though the pro posal, by her own staff estimate, would

require just 11 new positions and $1 mil lion. We're talking about a major pro gram to control known or suspected car cinogens, remember.

She has cut the budget so dramatically

that even the environmental community

is begging for a restoration to 1981 levels

in 1984. Even her few budget increases

are suspect. She asked for another $1.5

million for acid rain research after ap proving program changes that will in crease the pollution that causes acid rain

--sulfur dioxide--by more than 1 million

tons a year. Her boast of "increases" in

Superfund hides the fact that the money

has already been collected and placed in

a Treasury account.

This EPA reflects her beliefs. The old

EPA, the one America believes still exists,

shared the people's commitment to the

public health and welfare. Most Americans think of environmental regulation as a settled matter, something we do as a society to make everyone's life a little safer, healthier or more enjoyable. This EPA, when the threads finish unraveling, will shock most deeply because it embodies an abandonment of that fundamental consensus.

Ten years ago the Nixon administration promised Congress that EPA would be an independent agency--an agency with a mandate to advocate environmental protection--and formal independence was unnecessary. That promise, kept by three administrators, caused Sen. Ed Muskie to abandon legislation to create a truly independent agency and support the more handy Nixon reorganization plan. That promise was made because of a near unanimous view that government, and government alone, had to be the defender of the environment.

If government abandons the role, as is clearly the case at today's EPA, we must somehow reassert control ourselves. If Congress cannot impeach Anne Gorsuch, then through the budget and policy oversight it can and must place the EPA in trusteeship until the people can speak again.