Rita M. Lavelle, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency's hazardous waste cleanup division, outlined a strategy for turning the "Superfund" toxic dump cleanup fund to President Reagan's political advantage in a pre-election memo last year to White House deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver.
The White House repeatedly has denied any contact between presidential aides and EPA officials on use of the fund, which is designed to clean up dumps that present an immediate health hazard.
House Energy and Commerce Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) released the memo yesterday in a news conference, saying that it "confirms clear politicization" of the $1.6 billion Superfund.
"This memorandum makes clear that Ms. Lavelle and Mr. Deaver had been discussing the use of Superfund for the intended benefit of certain congressional candidates, a governor and the president of the United States," Dingell said.
The memo urged Reagan to travel to New Jersey Sept. 17, 1982, to announce the award of six cleanup grants and "support the candidacies of New Jersey candidates, including Millicent Fenwick." Fenwick, then a New Jersey representative, was the unsuccessful Republican nominee for the Senate.
Lavelle suggested that the announcement might take place in Trenton, with then-EPA Administrator Anne M. Burford and New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean in attendance, along with Fenwick and Rep. Edwin B. Forsythe (R-N.J.), whose district contained two of the dumps. "I know Anne and the governor would love to share the limelight," Lavelle added in a handwritten note.
Deaver characterized the memo yesterday as an "innocuous letter," and said he responded with a routine letter declining the invitation.
Deaver said it was "not uncommon" for a government official to request the president's attendance at events.
But Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), who joined Dingell at yesterday's news conference, accused the EPA of "duplicity" in announcing 17 grants in a three-week period in September, 1982, just ahead of the November election.
"Nobody did anything for a year and a half on the merits, and then everyone gets all charged up for the six months before an election," Florio said. Despite the EPA announcements, "No money has actually been spent cleaning up at all," he said.
Dingell's release of the memo brought a sharp response from Rep. James T. Broyhill (R-N.C.), ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, who accused Dingell of trying "to rekindle partisan political flames" in the face of President Reagan's efforts to restructure the scandal-rocked EPA.
Broyhill said Dingell had not presented "a scintilla of evidence indicating political manipulation of the Superfund."
White House counsel Fred F. Fielding launched a review in February of all contacts between the White House and the EPA, and expanded it in March when it was disclosed that his review had failed to unearth a July, 1982, meeting between Lavelle and White House intergovernmental affairs assistant James M. Medas, in which upcoming political races were discussed.
The results of Fielding's inquiries have never been released, but he said yesterday he was aware of the Sept. 13 memo to Deaver. Asked if the White House had suggested to Lavelle that political announcements of grants under the health-oriented Superfund might be unwise, he responded, "Not to my knowledge."
In her memo, Lavelle also suggested that in October, 1982, Reagan might want to go to Seymour, Ind., where the agency was preparing to announce a negotiated settlement for the partial cleanup of a large dump site.
The Seymour site has become a major target of congressional investigations into alleged political manipulation and mismanagement of the Superfund. EPA internal documents indicate that the negotiated agreement was approved over the strenuous objections of the agency's legal office, which argued that the EPA should go to court to make sure it was getting a fair settlement. The agreement was announced Oct. 26, less than two weeks before the November elections.
Lavelle was cited for contempt of Congress on Wednesday for failing to obey a House subpoena to testify on Superfund management and allegations that the agency put grants on an "election track" for the 1982 campaigns.
Under oath to another congressional subcommittee last February, Lavelle testified that White House counselor Edwin Meese III or someone acting in his behalf asked her for status reports on some sites. Meese and Cabinet secretary Craig L. Fuller, whom Lavelle described as "most likely" to have called for Meese, have denied her statements.
Dingell, who conceded that the Energy subcommittee on oversight that he heads had no evidence that Deaver invited the letter or responded to it, also released a page from a notebook kept by a staff aide in the office of the EPA's general counsel. In it, the aide noted that "President Reagan wants to visit" the Seymour site.
The notation was dated Sept. 20, a week after Lavelle's memo to Deaver.
Reagan never made a trip to Seymour, and Deaver and Fielding said they did not believe that it was contemplated.