An oceanographer was assigned to cut and paste an organizational chart. Scientists with Ph.Ds were detailed to punch holes in documents to be bound. Employes who questioned administration projects were told their names had been placed on a "hit list."
The Office of Federal Activities, tucked in the towering headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency, is an exaggerated study in the effects of the Reagan administration's stewardship of the agency and the political changes it has attemped to force in EPA's mission.
Its morale and management problems are a microcosm of those that William D. Ruckelshaus, nominated yesterday as EPA administrator, will confront as he takes the helm of the troubled agency.
While the rest of the EPA serves as a watchdog on polluting industries, it is up to the federal activities office to monitor the environmental impacts of federal government projects, from nuclear power plants and dams to offshore leasing plans.
Run by a career civil servant until 1981, the office now is directed by political appointees, including office director Paul Cahill, a Californian who had no prior experience at the agency. The No. 2 official, Louis J. Cordia, resigned last week after it was confirmed that he had compiled "hit lists" of EPA employes to be hired, fired or transferred according to their political leanings.
More than half of the 47 career bureaucrats who were working in the office when Cahill and Cordia arrived have quit or gotten transfers to other agencies. Half the secretaries also have left.
"If you were a career civil servant, you were the enemy," said a longtime employe in the office who insisted on anonymity. "We began calling it the concentration camp, and we called ourselves the Jews. When somebody got another job, we referred to it as 'getting over the wall.' "
Cahill did not return telephone calls, and Cordia said through his attorney last week that there was no attempt to undermine the mission of the office.
Until 1981, EPA officials said, the assessments emerging from the OFA were largely controlled by scientists in the agency's headquarters and regional offices.
After Cahill arrived, according to seven current and former employes, all reports were cleared through Cordia, who was hired from a conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, where he had written articles criticizing the EPA's regulatory zeal. Cordia also wrote the EPA section in "Mandate for Leadership," the Heritage Foundation's blueprint for a conservative administration.
Several scientists said Cordia's office became a sort of black hole where their reports languished for months. Sometimes the reports emerged after a federal project had already been cleared, other times they surfaced in dramatically different form than they had been submitted, particularly if they had criticized a project that had high priority for the Reagan administration.
A draft study from the Boston EPA office pointing out potential water pollution threats from the Interior Department's offshore oil drilling plan was revised to say that the plan was environmentally safe, with no mention of the problems cited in the original draft, federal activities office documents show.
When the Energy Department proposed to reopen an idled nuclear reactor in South Carolina, scientists in the EPA's Atlanta office warned in memos that it could endanger public health. But a document initialed by Cahill concluded that it would have "no significant impact" on the environment and should go forward without further studies.
The offshore oil drilling plan is a top priority of Interior Secretary James G. Watt, who calls it essential to the nation's drive for energy independence. The administration wants to reopen the South Carolina reactor to aid the production of new nuclear weapons.
Cordia said through his attorney that there were no unusual delays in issuing the environmental reviews, but the office's leaders have come under fire from Watt and others for failing to file reports on time. Watt complained in a memo that the office sat on one of his proposals to change federal strip-mining regulations for 92 days, although federal law required the office to issue comments within 20 days.
Federal activities office documents show that 19 environmental reviews, all of them overdue under federal rules, were snagged in the office as of last week.
After Cordia resigned, several employes in his office left for a celebratory lunch. "Nobody's here," said one who stayed behind. "Some of them are out on a picnic. The others are jumping for joy in the corridors."