Rita M. Lavelle, who was fired as hazardous waste control chief at the Environmental Protection Agency, testified yesterday that her policy of trying to negotiate settlements with industrial polluters before prosecuting them was dictated by EPA Administrator Anne M. Burford.
"I thought that was the philosophy we were supposed to be following," Lavelle told a House Public Works subcommittee. She said she regularly presented policy options to Burford, who agreed that Lavelle should "negotiate first, litigate second."
Lavelle also said that she encouraged her aides to announce grants from EPA's $1.6-billion toxic waste "Superfund" during last fall's election campaign, although she said some settlements had been in the works for months.
"We were selling the program," Lavelle said. "We were in a sales mode on the accomplishments of Superfund because we were under fire. I encouraged my people to go out and make announcements . . . . I think the elections heightened the interest in maybe helping some of the state sites."
Under questioning by Rep. Michael A. Andrews (D-Tex.), Lavelle said she was "embarrassed" to admit that she never had read the EPA ethics code, which forbids employes from accepting meals from industry executives. But while she frequently accepted meals from chemical company officials, Lavelle insisted she did not discuss pending legal cases. "I was not negotiating across the lunch table."
Lavelle said the only gifts she received from industry officials were a photo of a hazardous waste dump and a garbage-can belt buckle.
Lavelle said she often did not attempt to prosecute corporate polluters because of inexperienced agency lawyers, inadequate evidence and poor legal support from EPA General Counsel Robert M. Perry.
Lavelle frequently criticized Perry for trying to sue polluting companies, and she said their clashes "slowed down" several enforcement cases. Asked about one memorandum from a Perry aide that criticized her policy on cleaning up highly toxic dioxin, she said, "This is typical of the type of drivel that was coming out of Perry's shop."
Lavelle said she argued with Perry about a controversial settlement that allowed 24 companies to pay $7.7 million to clean up the surface of a hazardous waste dump at Seymour, Ind., and escape all further liability for the site.
Lavelle said she wanted to prosecute more than 150 remaining firms for their share, and admitted that she did not know whether the underground cleanup will cost far more than EPA's $15 million estimate.
Elliott H. Levitas (D-Ga.), chairman of the investigation and oversight subcommittee, said this "is one of the real sweetheart deals" because "the major contaminators bought out and got themselves relieved of responsibility for a fraction of what it's going to cost to clean up that site. The taxpayers are going to end up eating the rest of the cost."
Levitas also played a tape, provided by the Justice Department, of regional EPA officials discussing a congressional request for documents on the Stringfellow Acid Pits, a hazardous waste dump near Riverside, Calif. Lavelle said she excused herself from the case after learning that her former employer dumped wastes at Stringfellow.
On the tape, an unidentified EPA official joked that the office should pull the files together and "we'll burn them."
"You mean like Watergate?" one participant asked.
"Like Stringfellowgate," came the response amid laughter.
After further joking, Levitas said, the tape went blank in mid-sentence.
The tape prompted Lavelle to announce that she had checked her telephone with hand-held equipment and concluded that "my phone is bugged."
Lavelle had testified Wednesday that she had spoken to White House counselor Edwin Meese III or his aide 10 or 12 times during her tenure. Craig Fuller, who works for Meese, said he checked his calendar for 1982. He said he had "six or seven meetings in total with EPA officials." He recalled that Lavelle was present at two or three meetings.
They included sessions on EPA issues to be taken up by the White House Cabinet Council, EPA's budget review and a meeting that was part of the administration's mid-term planning. "We didn't discuss specific cases," he said.
Fuller said he could not speak for Meese, who is in California and did not return a phone call.
Lavelle testified yesterday that she never had discussed a specific case with White House officials but that some remarked that "it looks like you're getting a lot of settlements and doing a good job." She did not say who made the comments.