In the media-dominated parlance of Washington, what began three months ago as a "historic constitutional confrontation" has evolved into a "scandal."
The controversy surrounding the Environmental Protection Agency has become vintage Washington drama, complete with tantalizing charges of alleged "wrongdoing at high levels" and whiffs of "cover-up" and "stonewalling."
It stars a besieged EPA administrator, Anne M. Burford, in a suspenseful struggle to save her job as key members of Congress and White House aides maneuver to force her out through news leaks and power plays from behind the scenes.
Last week it reached a climax of sorts when White House officials let it be known that they had come to regard her as a "political liability" to President Reagan who had to be cut loose regardless of what she had done right or wrong.
But the unfolding soap opera is part of a deeper struggle that has been going on as long as Reagan has been in office: the debate over whether th business-oriented philosophy emanating from the White House has hindered the prosecution of polluters and the protection of public health.
Until recently, this controversy was mostly technical and dull.Environmental groups and congressional critics complained repeatedly that lax enforcement by the EPA was undermining environmental laws, but the story rarely rose to the level of page one and the nightly news.
Now it has become spicier, with charges that senior agency officials had conflicts of interest and that they also tilted enforcement for political purposes, to help Republicans. Six congressional subcommittees, the Justice Department, the White House and the media are all investigating.
Burford and her aides have steadily denied any wrongdoing. But the sheer multiplicity of charges has itself become a factor, so that some Reagan aides are urging him to fire Burford simply for appearance's sake.
Here is a short catalogue of the charges, and effort to sort out what has become a confusing series of claims in the affair one House committee chairman has lumped together as "Sewergate:"
* The appearance of cover-up. This stems from four sets of events: the administration's effort to withhold hazardous waste documents from the House under a claim of executive privilege; the abrupt firing of former hazardous waste program chief Rita M. Lavelle; the shredding of an undetermined number of documents from Lavelle's program; and congressional charges that senior EPA officials lied under oath to House subcommittees investigating the waste program.
Under orders from President Reagan, Burford refused last December to comply with subpoenas from two House subcommittees seeking documents for investigations of the hazardous waste program. On the advice of the Justice Department, Reagan told Burford that release of the documents would jeopardize potential enforcement actions against polluters.
Reagan's decision only whetted House interest in the documents, leading subcommittee chairmen John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Elliott H. Levitas (D-Ga.) to charge that the papers contained evidence of "sweetheart" deals with polluters.
On Dec. 16, the full House took the historic step of holding Burford in contempt of Congress. The "constitutional confrontation," as it was termed, is almost resolved now; the White House and congressional leaders are negotiating terms of access to the disputed papers. But that standoff is minor compared with what followed.
On Feb. 7, Reagan abruptly fired Lavelle after a memo was found in her personal computer arguing that EPA lawyers were too tough on polluters and were "systematically alienating the primary constituents of this administration, the business community."
Lavelle went public with charges that she was being made a "fall guy" for deeper problems in the agency. Within a week, the number of congressional subcommittees investigating charges of "sweetheart" deals and other misbehavior at the agency had grown to six.
The next week, two shredders were discovered in the hazardous waste program office and agency officials acknowledged that dozens of EPA papers had been destroyed. They acknowledged that they had kept no log of what had been shredded, but insisted no subpoenaed papers were among them. Officials also acknowledged that notes stored in computers in the hazardous waste office had been purged. Again, there was said to be no log of what was lost.
House subcommittees also contend that agency officials have perjured themselves when questioned under oath about agency practices. Lavelle denied saying she had wanted to fire a "whistle blower" on her staff, while other officials said they had heard her express such a wish. Agency general counsel Robert M. Perry denied keeping "green books" of derogatory information on employes who were out of favor. Congressional investigators say they have obtained such books.
Lavelle denied knowing that he former employer, Aerojet General Corp., was a potential defendant in a hazardous waste case in California until mid-June, 1982, when she formally withdrew from the case. Three other agency officials said Lavelle was told on May 28 of the firm's involvement but continued to monitor meetings on the case afterward.
* The appearance of political manipulation. The most serious charge centers on an EPA decision to delay the cleanup of a dangerous, abandoned dump in California, the Stringfellow Acid Pits, in the middle of then-Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.'s campaign for the U.S. Senate.
Two administration officials have told the White House that they heard Burford claim last summer that she held up the $6.1 million project because she thought a cleanup announcement would help Democrat Brown's campaign. Republican Pete Wilson eventually won the Senate race.
House lawyers say it is illegal to use federal grants to interfere with an election. Burford has denied that political considerations influenced any cleanup decisions.
The Stringfellow cleanup reportedly was approved by lawyers and scientists in the program, but was put on hold in late July by Burford, who said she had questions about how the cost of the project should be divided between the EPA and California.
Senior EPA officials have acknowledged that they pushed to announce cleanup grants in Republican districts just before the election, but say this is standard political behavior.
However, congressional investigators have obtained documents showing that dumps in several Republican districts were approved for pre-election cleanup announcements despite warnings from some EPA officials that the projects had not been adequately studied.
It was also disclosed that the administration had amassed "hit lists" to get rid of certain science advisers in the agency who were considered liberal by industry and conservative groups. More than 50 scientists were removed from the EPA's science advisory boards in the last two years. The removals were based on lists describing various scientists as "horrible," "a real activist" and "a Nader on toxics."
* The appearance of conflicts of interest. The close ties between serveral EPA regulators and the industries they regulate have come under increasing scrutiny in the last month, although Reagan made no secret of his plans to staff the EPA with business-oriented officials.
James W. Sanderson, a Denver attorney who worked as a consultant to Burford while also representing companies regulated by the agency, is under investigation by Congress, the FBI and the White House for possible conflicts of interest. It was learned recently that Burford had refused to replace him despite urgings form the White House. Sanderson withdrew from consideration for the No. 3 job at the agency after the investigations began last year.
He has denied any conflict, saying he walled himself off from decisions directly affecting his clients.
Investigators are also probing Lavelle's relationship with Aerojet and her friendships with many chemical industry officials. She has acknowledged that she was regularly treated to lunches and dinners by executives of companies that were under investigation for allegedly creating some of the nation's most dangerous toxic dumps. The meals appeared to be violations of EPA ethics rules.
But Lavelle insisted that these contacts had no influence over her behavior as an enforcer of hazardous waste laws.
Disclosures of these relationships have fueled congressional accusations that the EPA is striking "sweetheart" settlements with cocmpanies rather than forcing them to pay for full cleanup of sites where they deposited hazardous wastes. But congressional investigators say it is difficult to prove whether settlements were unduly favorable. Without the backdrop of scandal, the issue would probably be too complicated to draw national attention, they said.
"If they had just turned over these documents, all of this never would have happened," said Stanley M. Brand, general counsel to the clerk of the House, who represents the House in the contempt case against Burford. "We'd still be knee-deep in records. Now what they've done is draw us a map to the heart of the problem -- political manipulation and the potential for wrongdoing in this program."