Former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Anne M. Burford sent the White House blunt political assessments of proposed agency actions each week throughout the 1982 election campaign, according to documents made public yesterday.
The "issue alerts" warned the White House that some proposals would be viewed as "a 'whitewash' for the chemical industry," be "attacked by Congressman Toby Moffett and environmental groups" or bring "strong support from the lead manufacturers."
The assessments describe in detail how interest groups were expected to react to EPA proposals, ranging from relaxing restrictions on lead levels in gasoline to exempting chemicals from agency review.
Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.) released the assessments yesterday, saying they "peel some of the outer skin from what has become the rapidly rotting onion of this administration's environmental policy. These alerts contradict many of the White House explanations and denials," in which administration officials have said they generally took a hands-off approach to major regulatory decisions at the EPA.
One alert last November, describing an effort to make it easier for some hazardous waste companies to exempt wastes from EPA regulation, said: "Industry will appreciate this streamlining effort. Environmental groups . . . could view it as another 'regulatory retreat' by EPA."
The highly detailed messages, which cover the period from April, 1982, until this month, spelled out the potential impact of even minor actions. The most sensitive alerts were headed, "Major Significance--Possible Controversy," while others were labeled "minor significance" or "routine."
Scheuer said that in turning the issue alerts over to Congress, the White House told him they were distributed to White House counselor Edwin Meese III, communications director David R. Gergen, political aides Edward Rollins and Lyn Nofziger, domestic policy assistants Richard G. Darman, Edwin L. Harper and Danny J. Boggs, and vice presidential aide C. Boyden Gray.
According to Scheuer, the White House said the alerts also went to the Office of Management and Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers and the Council on Environmental Quality.
In an alert last May, the EPA noted that its proposal to exempt Kodak and Polaroid from submitting certain photographic chemicals for a required review could touch off a controversy.
"Environmentalists may criticize the agency's finding of no unreasonable risk for a chemical category containing new substances of unknown toxicity," the message said, adding: "The affected corporations will react favorably."
In a message last April, Burford described "an extremely controversial regulation" to relax limits on lead in gasoline, which scientists had warned "would send blood lead levels back up again" after a national decline.
"Relaxation of lead requirements would get strong support from lead manufacturers and moderate support from the refinery industry," Burford wrote. "However, there would be a strong outcry from the medical community and environmentalists."
The lead proposal also was at issue when Burford suggested to officials of Thriftway Co., a New Mexico refiner, that they would not be prosecuted if they failed to meet the current EPA lead standard.
"I did advise that I could not see us driving someone out of business while we were considering changing the very rule they might be charged with violating," she told the White House.
Burford said she was considering whether to waive a potential fine against Thriftway, but warned: "The issue has triggered significant adverse publicity . . . . Waiving or mitigating the penalty will be attacked by Congressman Moffett and environmental groups."
The EPA later backed away from its plan to relax lead limits in gasoline. The White House was told reaction would be "very positive" from environmental groups, but "mixed to mildly negative from large refiners. Negative from small refiners . . . Negative from lead manufacturers."
The alerts did not shed much light on the controversy surrounding the delaying of federal cleanup funds for the Stringfellow Acid Pits in California. Several EPA employes have said that Burford decided to withhold a planned cleanup grant last summer to avoid aiding the Senate campaign of then-Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., a Democrat who might have tried to take credit for getting the grant.
"On Tuesday, July 27," Burford wrote in one alert, "I will announce a $6 million cooperative agreement for cleanup action at the Stringfellow hazardous waste site . . . "
After noting that toxic wastes contaminated the area's groundwater, she continued: "Public interest has been high . . . . Congressman George Brown and Senator Alan Cranston have expressed interest in this site. Media interest also has been high."
But in the Aug. 3 alert the following week, Burford mentioned her canceled "press conference" on Stringfellow, and wrote, "However, because of legal technicalities in the cooperative agreement, signing of the agreement has been postponed."
Presidential spokesman Larry Speakes said yesterday in response to questions about the Stringfellow site that he knew of no White House instructions to any agency "that they should play politics with any grants during the election campaign."
In a "highly sensitive" memo last April, Burford warned Rollins that the EPA soon would be accused of "a 'whitewash' for the chemical industry" in its handling of the Love Canal cleanup in New York.
Burford said the National Bureau of Standards soon would issue a report critical of the EPA and that "The N.Y. congressional delegation (particularly Congressman John J. LaFalce and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan) will be extremely critical. Local residents will react negatively."
The following month, Burford said the EPA would try to delay release of parts of the report and would respond to criticism by saying the chapters "should not be reviewed out of context."
In one message, Burford provided a glimpse of how she viewed Congress when she described a joint hearing by five Democratic subcommittee chairmen last July.
"As we anticipated, the hearing was a political exercise for the subcommittee chairmen," Burford wrote. "However, the minority committee members were well prepared and did an excellent job of keeping discussion on the issues."