n the Colorado Legislature they were known as the "House Crazies," a band of militant conservatives who rose to power in 1979 and made war on government regulation.
They voted to kill measures to control toxic waste dumps, force reductions in car pollution, require immunization of school children against mumps and measles, regulate development of nature areas, provide bilingual education for minorities and teach skiing to the handicapped with state funds.
"People called us 'crazies' because when we started out everybody said we were crazy to think we could change the government," said Steven J. Durham, a former Young Americans for Freedom activist who captained the rise of the conservative caucus in the Colorado House. "They were wrong."
Today, Colorado's "crazies" are President Reagan's top environmental officers, enforcers of the same federal regulations they attacked under the gold-domed state capitol a few years ago. Their Denver histories, well known here, are only now receiving scrutiny in Washington as one element of the controversy over the Environmental Protection Agency.
Colorado Rep. Anne M. Gorsuch, who in 1980 voted to kill major hazardous waste regulation bills, is today the administrator of the EPA, Anne M. Burford.
Rep. Durham, who opposed state waste dumping laws and pushed to relax Colorado Health Department controls over quality of drinking water, is today regional administrator of the EPA, in charge of regulating air and water pollution and the dumping of toxic waste in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. Considered the master strategist of the House, Durham, 36, led Gorsuch/Burford and other conservative compatriots in a 1979 uprising that ousted the moderate Republican leadership, installing rancher Robert F. Burford as the new speaker of the House. He and Gorsuch were recently married, and she has changed her name to his.
Robert Burford is now director of the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management, responsible for federal programs to develop or protect more than 300 million acres of western public lands. (He has promised to take no part in BLM decisions affecting his relatives, who hold permits to graze sheep and cattle on thousands of acres of federal land.)
After winning the speaker's seat by one vote, Burford appointed Durham, Gorsuch and others to chair key House committees. From these berths, they caught the attention of presidential advisers after Ronald Reagan's election in the national conservative tide of 1980.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, the Burford-appointed education committee chairman who sought cuts in state poverty programs because "too much government in the realm of social services takes away the individual's responsibility," is now Denver regional director of the Department of Education.
Rep. Frank DeFilippo, a Burford-appointed committee vice chairman who is sponsoring a state bill to reopen a toxic waste dump shut down by health authorities, served on Reagan's transition team.
Speaker Burford assigned several major regulatory bills to Gorsuch's State Affairs Committee, where they often died, according to several panel members. As a result, other legislators nicknamed the committee "the killing ground." It was through this procedure that the hazardous waste bill reached Gorsuch's panel in 1980, over the protests of legislators who said it belonged in committees that specialize in health, the environment, water or land use.
At the time, Gorsuch said she moved to kill the bill--the product of a months-long study to create state rules on the location and operation of hazardous dumps--because federal rules were too unsettled for the state to move ahead with its own controls.
A state health official who monitored the committee hearings said that Gorsuch and other opponents "seemed less concerned about public health than the burden on industry." The official noted that the views of the conservative caucus were not ususual here in the pro-development atmosphere of the Rockies.
"I don't think they were in anyone's pocket. They obviously had very deep personal convictions about the problems of overregulation," the official said. "It's just that this led them to do exactly what industry wanted."
One of the chief lobbyists against the 1980 bill was Thornton Field of the Adolph Coors Co., the brewery and manufacturing complex run by Reagan intimate Joseph Coors. Gorsuch hired Field as her special assistant on toxic wastes at the EPA. He is now in the agency's enforcement division.
In all, the militant conservative caucus numbered about a dozen, and rarely broke ranks on budget or social policy issues. They retained James G. Watt, then head of the Mountain States Legal Foundation here, to sue the EPA in 1979 in an attempt to block the federal agency from forcing Colorado to monitor and control air pollution from automobiles. Watt is now secretary of the Interior Department.
Gorsuch was not among the 27 legislators who filed the suit. A reporter quoted her as saying she had intended to join the plaintiffs but was out of town at the time. The next year, Gorsuch was the House sponsor of a pro-environment car pollution inspection program, but a weaker one than many advocates favored.
Assisting Watt in the anti-EPA suit was another conservative Denver attorney, James W. Sanderson.
Sanderson, who was chosen by Gorsuch for the No. 3 post at the EPA, worked for more than a year as her close consultant, helping to staff and reorganize the agency. He withdrew from consideration for a permanent top EPA job last year, after the Justice Department began investigating him for possible conflicts of interest for allegedly taking part in agency decisions that could have affected his clients. The probe remains "active," according to the Justice Department.
Congressional critics and environmentalists have insisted since the dawn of the Reagan administration that the appointments of Watt, Gorsuch and others were tantamount to dismantling environmental protections. The White House and senior officials at the EPA and the Interior Department have asserted repeatedly that they seek only a "reasoned" approach to regulations on business.
Still, Colorado Democrats insist that the lineup at the EPA and Interior bears the imprint of Coors, one of the chief political patrons of the Burfords, Durham and others who share their political views.
Coors was a member of the "kitchen cabinet" that advised Reagan on setting up the administration, and his objections to many environmental regulations are well-documented. He created the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which filed dozens of lawsuits against EPA and Interior actions during the Carter administration, and hired Watt to head it.
Coors declines to discuss his influence on federal environmental policy. "He considers his politics to be his personal business," said Whit Sibley, a company spokesman.
While the furor over the Reagan administration's environmental policies has kept Gorsuch/Burford and Watt under close national scrutiny, Durham, the architect of the conservative revolution here, has so far escaped the Washington spotlight.
But in Denver, Durham has a profile as high as the Rockies. He recently decried the congressional probes of the EPA's toxic waste program as "hysteria," saying that no toxic dumps pose serious dangers to human health. In a speech, he dared critics to "give me a list of one person who has died as a result of a hazardous waste site."
Aides to Democratic Gov. Richard D. Lamm promptly pointed reporters to the deaths of two Denver Water Board crewmen from a methane gas explosion at the site of an abandoned dump in Sand Creek.
Lamm said Durham's remarks show that he "misunderstands the whole last century of public health development. You don't have to wait for bodies to show" before acting.
"They Democrats have no chance of gaining sympathy on the economic issues, so they're trying to make hay on EPA," Durham said in a recent interview. "There's no greater political issue than convincing people they're going to die." Hazardous wastes, Durham said, are "like any other potentially dangerous substance. Take a hazardous waste known as gasoline. We all handle it every day."
Durham has come under congressional scrutiny as part of the Sanderson investigation. The Denver EPA chief was accused of holding up for months Colorado's strict state water quality standards, which would increase costs for Sanderson's client, the Denver Water Board. Durham said he did not talk with Sanderson about the matter.
Durham observed, however, that Sanderson was only a consultant to the EPA at the time, not a full-time official. "He was a private citizen. Under the law, he can do whatever he damned well pleases. He can talk to me or anyone else."
Asked if this freed Sanderson to influence EPA decisions affecting his clients, Durham said, "That could be a problem, I suppose."
Durham said he had little interest in environmental issues before taking the EPA job. "Why did I want the job?" he said in response to a question. "Anne recruited me, and I was looking for an opportunity to try and change government. This was one of them."