Anne M. Burford resigned as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday, and the White House agreed to give Congress full access to all documents it is seeking in investigations of the troubled agency.
Burford told President Reagan that she hoped her resignation "will terminate the controversy and confusion that has crippled my agency . . . . "
Her resignation climaxed weeks of intensifying controversy over the EPA involving allegations of political manipulation, mismanagement and conflicts of interest that made her appear an unacceptable political liability to a growing number of senior White House aides and Republican politicians.
"Without an end to these unfortunate difficulties," she told Reagan in her resignation letter, "EPA is disabled from implementing its mandate and you are distracted from pursuing the critical domestic and international goals of your administration."
Burford delivered her resignation letter to Reagan during a 20-minute meeting in his White House residential quarters yesterday evening. She was accompanied by her husband, Interior Department official Robert Burford, Interior Secretary James G. Watt and presidential counselor Edwin Meese III.
In his letter accepting her resignation, Reagan said, "I have been greatly disappointed that some persons have unjustly attacked you and have made unfair judgments based upon allegations and innuendo alone."
Burford has not been accused publicly of any illegality. But increasing numbers of allegations have been made in recent weeks about potential wrongdoing by her subordinates.
And, hours before her resignation yesterday, two congressmen released EPA documents showing that she was warned by EPA's inspector general last April of damaging evidence against her friend and influential aide, James W. Sanderson, but failed to take any action.Details on Page A2
The president called Burford's departure from the EPA "an occasion of sorrow for us all," but added that "it is an act of unselfishness and personal courage . . . . "
Reagan added in his letter to her: "You can walk out of the Environmental Protection Agency with your head held high."
Burford arrived at the White House at 5 p.m. yesterday, met with Meese and went to see Reagan with her resignation in hand. Her personal attorney, Douglas P. Bennett, went to the White House with her, an official said.
While Meese and Watt joined Burford at her meeting with Reagan, White House chief of staff James A. Baker III stayed away. Baker had suggested a week before that Reagan fire Burford if she did not resign quickly. Watt, who was considered Burford's mentor in the administration, had counseled her often during the crisis in her agency. He served as what some officials described as a "back channel" to Burford in recent days, when aides frequently described her as appearing emotionally shaken by her ordeal.
Reagan, who has always been reluctant to push out loyal aides, did not announce the Burford departure personally. He left it to White House aides, who briefed reporters last night.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Burford will receive a part-time appointment "shortly" to an administration board or commission, which he did not specify. Officials said that it would not be a major appointment and that Burford said she did not want a full-time job.
Speakes said John W. Hernandez Jr., deputy administrator of the EPA, would take Burford's place temporarily.
A search for a replacement will begin today, Speakes said, adding that there was "no list" of possible replacements last night.
Recent reports, however, have mentioned John R. Quarles, deputy EPA administrator in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and Stanley Legro, another former EPA official, as potential replacements for Burford.
The abrupt resignation caught many of Burford's EPA colleagues by surprise, and left them facing uncertainties about their own fate. Joseph A. Cannon, who as policy chief holds the agency's No. 3 job, learned of Burford's move at 6:15 last night.
Cannon said that he hopes to stay on at the agency but that he was told the administration would find him another job, if necessary. He said, however, that he expects some senior officials will leave after a new administrator is nominated and confirmed.
In her 11-paragraph letter of resignation, Burford said that "it is now clear that my resignation is essential to termination of the controversy and confusion generated by the outstanding dispute" with Congress over EPA documents.
She did not mention the charges of mismanagement, political manipulation and conflict of interest that have swirled about her agency in the five weeks since one of her deputies, Rita M. Lavelle, was fired by Reagan.
But in citing the question of access to the EPA documents as her reason for leaving, Burford touched on what her closest associates said was a source of her growing resentment toward the administration.
Her aides said Burford had advised the White House from the beginning to turn over the documents to Congress, and emphasized that she withheld them only on Reagan's orders.
Burford was incensed last week when the Justice Department told her it could no longer defend her before congressional committees because of its own investigations into allegations of wrongdoing at the EPA.
She also expressed irritation to aides that White House officials were pressuring her to resign.
At one point, Burford was reported to threaten defiance of White House precautions on delivery of the documents to Congress, a move that caused some administration officials to complain she had been disloyal.
Yesterday, however, Reagan agreed to turn over the documents dealing with the EPA's handling of the $1.6 billion Superfund to clean up the nation's worst hazardous waste dumps.
In a statement accompanying an agreement made with Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Reagan said that "it is now clear that prolonging this legal debate can only result in a slowing down of the release of information to the Congress--thereby fostering suspicion in the public's mind that somehow the important doctrine of executive privilege is being used to shield possible wrongdoing."
Reagan said he would continue to assert executive privilege, but the agreement made with the Dingell committee will be available to any other subcommittee seeking the documents and "willing to abide" by his demand that sensitive information be protected from public disclosure.
Under the memorandum of agreement, the EPA agreed to deliver the documents by 10 a.m. today and to identify those that are "enforcement sensitive."
The Dingell committee agreed to protect the confidentiality of those documents.
Speakes said he did not know if the agreement negates the need for Burford to testify before Dingell's committee today.
Administration officials who had been trying to arrange for Burford's resignation were known to regard her scheduled appearance before Dingell as a kind of deadline.
As recently as late yesterday afternoon, Burford's closest associates and political allies were saying she was preparing her testimony for that hearing and had no intention of resigning.
They said it would be "out of character" for her to cave in to the increasing pressure as long as she had the president's support.
Reagan said as recently as last Saturday that the EPA job was hers as long as she wanted it, and Speakes said only yesterday afternoon that this was still the case.
Even as Burford was at the White House delivering her resignation, one of her closest associates said she would not resign "unless she gets sick and tired of it, or unless she is convinced that she is a political liability to the president."
Tom Tancredo, regional chief of the Department of Education in Denver and a close personal friend of Burford, said he had talked to her recently and was convinced that she would not leave.
"I told her we had absolutely nothing to gain as a party by her exit. I don't think the media will stop these attacks," he said yesterday.
"As I told her then, the basic antagonism is not Anne Burford. It's a confrontation between two philosophies of government, one represented by Ronald Reagan, and the other represented by the media in Washington. She agreed with me, and I didn't think she would resign. This comes as a surprise to me."
The first reaction from Capitol Hill to Burford's resignation indicated that congressional scrutiny of the EPA is not likely to diminish immediately.
Sen. Gary Hart (Colo.), a declared candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, said in a statement that Burford's resignation "won't end the president's problems. The president's political trouble is caused more by his policies than by who's implementing them."
House Majority Leader James C. Wright Jr. (D-Tex.) agreed, saying, "It isn't a matter of personalities, it's a matter of policies." Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), another presidential contender, said, "The only better news would be that James Watt has resigned."
House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (Ill.) and Sen. Robert T. Stafford (Vt.), Republicans who had suggested that Burford resign, praised Burford for her courage.
But House Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he was "depressed that it had to come to this. I think she was a scapegoat for the politics of the Congress and the misguided advice of the White House."
Environmentalists generally hailed the action, but they, too, contended that removing Burford would not mute the controversy over the administration's environmental policies.
"We expect that Mrs. Burford's departure will affect environmental policy about the same way that replacing a water boy affects a lousy football team," said Jay D. Hair, an official with the National Wildlife Federation.
Her resignation, however, removes Burford as a "focal point for controversy," according to Alexander B. Trowbridge, president of the National Association of Manufacturers. He said he hoped that with her departure "the EPA will be able to once again carry out effectively its mission of protecting the nation's environment."
Burford, who was Anne M. Gorsuch until her recent marriage, joined the Reagan administration on May 20, 1981, to take what she called the second-toughest job in Washington.
The toughest, which would have been her first choice, had gone to Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman.
From the beginning, the woman who took over the reins of the Environmental Protection Agency sought a reputation as a hard-nosed businesswoman.
"I don't consider efficiency and environment to be mutually exclusive," she told a reporter shortly after taking office.
Reagan had campaigned with promises to rein in the EPA, and Burford undertook to see that his promises were kept.
More than half of the regulations targeted for early review by the administration's regulatory change team were EPA rules. Virtually all of Burford's subordinates at the agency came from the ranks of the industries they now regulate.
Environmentalists, always antagonistic toward the new EPA team, stepped up their charges last year, accusing EPA officials of endangering the public health through softened regulations, budget cuts and sharp cuts in enforcement efforts.
At the same time, House Democrats began their attempts to get documents they said could show "sweetheart" deals with industry in the negotiated agreements to clean up the worst of the nation's toxic waste dumps.
Burford refused access to those documents, acting under Reagan's claim of executive privilege. The standoff culminated last Dec. 16 in an unprecedented contempt-of-Congress charge against Burford, on a bipartisan 259-to-105 vote.
The Justice Department declined to prosecute Burford, and instead filed suit to block the House action. On Feb. 3, a U.S. District Court judge threw out the Justice lawsuit and urged the administration and Congress to work out a compromise.
But the next day Burford attempted to oust her toxic wastes control chief, Lavelle, in a feud over intra-agency loyalities.
Reagan fired Lavelle three days later, in a glare of publicity, and a half-dozen congressional panels soon were investigating mounting allegations about the agency and its officials.
On Feb. 16, in an attempt to stem the escalating controversy, the White House fired two lower-level officials and promised a "fresh start" at the embattled agency.
But the agency's critics were not appeased. Yesterday, after two weeks of intense speculation over whether she would go or stay, Burford went.