The Environmental Protection Agency allowed members of a presidential advisory commission to comb its files while some of the members' companies were battling the EPA in dozens of pollution cases, a House committee chairman has charged.
The EPA has acknowledged that it placed "no special restrictions" on access given to members of the President's Private Sector Survey on Cost Control. The 64 executives who studied the EPA work for about 30 companies, including such regulated firms as Shell Oil, Dow Chemical, Union Carbide, Ashland Oil, Monsanto, American Cyanamid, Ford, Phillips Petroleum and B.F. Goodrich.
The agency has cited 20 of the companies for 118 violations of toxic and hazardous waste laws and 20 violations of the Clean Water Act. Many of the cases are pending.
"It is incredible that these individuals were allowed to review EPA documents . . . ," Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a letter this week. "Even more incredible is that we should rely on the recommendation of individuals with such obvious vested interests as to how EPA could best carry out its mission.
"It is the clearest possible example of 'the fox in the chicken coop,' " Dingell wrote Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.), who is reviewing the activities of the private-sector panel headed by businessman Peter Grace.
An EPA spokesman said the agency plans to adopt many of the Grace commission's cost-cutting recommendations and is reviewing others.
"It was a serious study and therefore we treated it seriously," said EPA Administrator William D. Ruckelshaus.
In internal responses prepared for the White House, however, senior EPA officials strongly criticized most of the panel's recommendations, calling them "oversimplified," "highly questionable" and "ill-advised."
"The report does not appear to be interested in maintaining the quality of environmental programs," Val Adamkus, the EPA's Chicago regional administrator, said in a typical response.
In a letter to Dingell, William Benoit, the EPA's acting deputy assistant administrator for administration, said that "to the best of my knowledge" the Grace panel was not given any sensitive EPA documents.
"No special restrictions or limitations on access to agency documents were placed specifically on the task force," Benoit said. But he said that EPA staff were "aware of the general limitations on public access to sensitive enforcement documents, restricted personnel information and proprietary business information . . . . Access to such information was thus protected by our general policies . . . ."
Felix E. Larkin of the commission also told Dingell that his staff was told not to ask for EPA files involving particular corporations. Larkin maintained that the staff "did not gain access to documents considered by EPA to be of a confidential nature."
In internal responses prepared last May for White House Cabinet secretary Craig Fuller, EPA officials rejected eight of the commission's 12 recommendations as "infeasible," "undesirable" or containing "major . . . flaws." In one such document, EPA official Carol Finch said the proposed cost savings "are greatly overstated" and "appear to include incorrect assumptions, oversights and miscalculations."
In recommending that six EPA laboratories be closed, Finch said, the commission underestimated their size and overestimated other labs' ability to absorb the extra work.
The commission also suggested that the EPA's huge construction grants program, which already has been reduced sharply, be turned over to the states. But Adamkus said that "delegation to states who have not proved their capability to successfully manage the program would be ill-advised." He added that a suggestion for streamlining the EPA's permit process "oversimplifies and overgeneralizes" the problems involved.
Bill McCulloch, a consultant to the Grace commission, called such criticism a typical bureaucratic response. Speaking for himself, McCulloch said, "Nobody wants the money saved on their block. If you recommend saving money at Defense, Defense is going to tell you it can't be done or they would have done it already."