The White House yesterday attempted to regain the political offensive in the controversy over the Environmental Protection Agency by offering congressional subcommittees "complete access" to documents they have been seeking.
But several subcommittee chairmen said President Reagan still may be imposing limits on access to the documents that they find unacceptable.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes announced Reagan's policy in Santa Barbara, Calif., where Reagan is vacationing.
In outlining the president's new position, Speakes did not mention Reagan's previous claims of "executive privilege" to explain his decision to withhold the documents from Congress.
Last December, EPA Administrator Anne M. Burford was cited for contempt of Congress for following Reagan's orders to withhold the papers.
Speakes said Reagan was briefed yesterday morning by White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III on the EPA situation, which involves allegations of mismanagement, conflict of interest and political manipulation in the $1.6 billion Superfund program to clean up the nation's most dangerous hazardous waste dumps.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) had sent a letter to the White House Tuesday saying that his subcommittee has uncovered "evidence of wrongdoing, unethical behavior and potential criminal conduct" at EPA.
Baker said in an interview, "The president means it when he says that he wants reports of wrongdoing investigated, and that's why he has directed the Department of Justice to immediately sit down with Dingell."
"Categorically we have not put any limitations on the investigation," said White House counsel Fred F. Fielding, who was brought into the interview by Baker. "We have urged the Justice Department not to do so. We want them to investigate everything and anything."
Speakes said Reagan had decided that all six congressional subcommittees investigating the agency "shall continue to have complete access to any and all documents they seek in conjunction with oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency."
Speakes said the order extends to five other subcommittees a previous compromise reached by the White House with the subcommittee headed by Rep. Elliott H. Levitas (D-Ga.).
Under this agreement, "enforcement sensitive" sections of the documents are censored, but these sections can be seen at a meeting attended only by committee members and two staffers. None of the documents can be copied.
Dingell said that he considered the movement by the White House to be a sign of "progress," but Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.), who heads another investigating subcommittee, called the White House offer "an unacceptable charade."
"There are thousands, hundreds of thousands of documents," he said, criticizing the restrictions against copying. He added that if Reagan does not provide easier access to the documents, he would consider starting a new contempt proceeding against Burford.
Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), chairman of an Energy and Commerce subcommittee that is also investigating EPA, said, "I've said all the way through that we want complete access."
Meanwhile, in an interview yesterday with the Associated Press, Baker would not say whether the administration is committed to keeping Burford in her job permanently.
"There are no present plans" to fire the controversial administrator, Baker said. "The president does not believe you just toss somebody over the side in order to achieve some political benefit," Baker said, adding, "unless there is some reason to do so."
So far, he said, "the only thing that's been suggested--and they are just vague general suggestions--is that somehow she's guilty of mismanagement."
Speakes said in his briefing that the president has rejected a request by Burford that an independent commission be set up to examine the agency's handling of Superfund.
"It's our opinion that it's not needed," Speakes said.