The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; EPA's Future
JIM LEHRER: Good evening. The steady drip-drip of stories about the troubled Environmental Protection Agency continued unabated today, the major development being the strange failure of a key congressman and the Justice Department to hold a meeting. The congressman is John Dingell, the Democratic chairman of one of the six congressional committees who, along with the FBI, are investigating various aspects of alleged EPA misdeeds. Dingell wrote a letter to President Reagan last week saying he had sworn direct testimony proving wrongdoing in the agency. Mr. Reagan ordered Justice to meet with Dingell to get that evidence, and the meeting was set for this morning. But Dingell reportedly canceled it, and his aides and Justice Department officials spent the rest of the day suggesting it was the other avoiding the meeting. Whatever the truth and the ultimate importance of the incident, it does qualify as still one more episode in the EPA saga which began four weeks ago with the firing of Rita Lavelle as head of EPA's toxic waste program. There are now an increasing number of people, including some White House aides and Republican members of Congress, who say it will not end until there is another departure, that of Anne Burford as administrator of EPA. Her supporters say that argument is nonsense; she should hang tough and not let herself be made a scapegoat. How much of the EPA problem is a Burford problem is among what we ask tonight.Robert MacNeil is off; Charlayne Hunter-Gault is in New York. Charlayne?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Jim, it's been a week of intense pressure building on Anne Burford. Although President Reagan expressed full confidence in her, he followed by saying she could stay in the job as long as she wants to. Under ordinary circumstances, that follow-up might not have seemed strange, but it came amidst widely published rumors that White House aides were indeed pressuring her to resign. And it followed calls for her resignation in the interests of her agency and the Presidency from nearly half a dozen Republican lawmakers. Even House Minority Leader Robert Michel said that Mrs. Burfore's credibility has been undermined. Not uncharacteristically, it was Mrs. Burford herself who added to the mounting pressure. Angered over a Justice Department announcement that it would no longer represent her before Congress, she lashed out through aides. She claimed she had been left high and dry to defend herself against legal problems that had been created by White House decisions -- decisions, she added, that she had not agreed with in the first place. That caused more pique at the White House and, once again, a strange turn: the President reiterated his position on her keeping her job, but White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes said the President has not barred his staff from seeking her resignation. Jim?
LEHRER: For awhile it was only Democrats in Congress calling publicly for Mrs. Burford's resignation or ouster, but in the last few days that has changed. Several Republicans are now saying it, Senator Alfonse D'Amato of New York having joined the call today. One of the first Republicans to do so was Senator Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota. Senator, why should she leave?
Sen. RUDY BOSCHWITZ: Well, I just see the whole thing as not an attack on Mrs. Burford, from my standpoint, but rather as an opportunity. The EPA has never been a very effective agency. The EPA has an opportunity now to set a new direction, a direction similar to the direction taken in Europe where people live on top of one another, where the environment is of much greater concern even than it is here. There, a very distinguished scientist will be at the head of the agency, and there will not just respond to complaints, but they will actually go out and constructively seek ways to improve the environment. We need to have such a scientist at the head of the agency. A deputy can run the agency. A special assistant at the White House should be appointed in order to oversee all this clamor that has developed around the present head of the agency. But it's an opportunity to do something bigger and to do something better and more constructive -- like the NIH. The National Institutes of Health have been very professionally run, and there's no reason that the EPA, which is basically a scientific thrust, cannot be as effectively run.
LEHRER: Do you know of any evidence of any wrongdoing, malfeasance, or whatever by Mrs. Burford?
Sen. BOSCHWITZ: I don't get into that at all.I say that -- I have a list of people I would be happy to recommend to you now who are very fine ecologists, who stand out in the field of environment, who have spent their entire life at the research institutions of this country, who have even some experience in managing large agencies and large staffs. Those are the kind of people --
LEHRER: So it's not a Burford problem per se to you; it's a type of person problem, that's running the agency?
Sen. BOSCHWITZ: It's an opportunity that the problems of Mrs. Burford had -- I don't pass on them, I don't want to get involved in that argument. I think it's an opportunity to change the direction of an agency that could be much more effective than it has been in the past. There are many competent, able scientists around who can bring a great credibility to this agency. It does not now have it, and it really hasn't had it.
LEHRER: As a Republican Senator, let me ask you this. How do you think -- what do you think of the way the White House has handled this these last several days?
Sen. BOSCHWITZ: I don't pass judgment on that either. You know, I don't want to get into that. I just want to make the EPA --
Lehrer: i'm going to do my best to get you into it.
Sen. BOSCHWITZ: I know.I want to make the EPA the best functioning agency in the government.
LEHRER: So clearly it isn't now under Mrs. Burford?
Sen. BOSCHWITZ: Clearly it's not.
LEHRER: In your opinion.
Sen. BOSCHWITZ: She can't be. I mean, she's up on the Hill answering charges from various committees on a full-time basis. Has an opportunity -- out of all this disarray comes an opportunity to build a bigger and better agency.Better, at least.
LEHRER: All right. I'm going to try to get at it this way. Whose opportunity is it? Is it the opportunity of the President to say, "Go, Mrs. Burford," or is it Mrs. Burford's opportunity to say, "I will leave"?
Sen. BOSCHWITZ: Both. I mean, either one.
LEHRER: You don't care how she goes as long as she goes and is replaced by a scientist?
Sen. BOSCHWITZ: I don't care what happens except that the EPA should be made a more effective agency than it now is. The way I would see that happening is that if an ecologist of national renown, and there are many, takes over the agency, has a deputy who administers the agency, has a special assistant to the White House who goes to all the hearings so that the new adrministrator just doesn't fall into this business of having a lot of folks ask him questions about what should have been done and so forth. That's not important.
LEHRER: Thank you. Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: Not all Republicans have joined the call for Mrs. Burford's resignation. In fact, she has some strong defenders, including Senator Alan Simpson, Republican of Wyoming. Senator, why aren't you supporting calls for Mrs. Burford's resignation?
Sen. ALAN SIMPSON: Well, I think of that great cartoon of the two buzzards sitting on the limb, and the one turns to the other and says, "Patience, my fanny. I'm going to kill something." And the easiest thing to do, it seems to me, in the turmoil of this situation is to just grab a microphone and kind of get everybody all juiced up, and that's very easy to do. In fact, we are all very good, card-carrying members of that union. But I haven't chosen to do that in my public activities, and so what I was saying the other day was you might want to take a look at what she has done. I chair the nuclear regulation subcommittee, so I know what she has done in presenting high-level radioactive waste standards. I know what she has done with regard to standards with regard to uranium mill tailings at inactive sites. I know what has happened with regard to toxic wastes. I was one of the drafters of Superfund. Eighty-one percent of the Superfund monies were expended. The site research goes on. Things that haven't happened at the designated sites have been caused by a failure of the municipalities to put up the money that must be done under Superfund.
HUNTER-GAULT: So, in other words, you're saying that basically Mrs. Burford has done a pretty good job and there is no reason to call for her resignation?
Sen. SIMPSON: No, I'm saying that there is another side, and there is a side that has to do with fairness and reason, and it is absolutely fascinating to watch this fascinating town -- I've been here only four years -- where we have this bloodlust, which is most extraordinary to watch, fed by a miasma of misinformation. And I just kind of sit on the side and say, hey, does anybody wish to pay attention to the fact that Anne Burford might do something right? And how curious it is to know that she has not been charged by anyone with not carrying out every single statute or regulation which she is required to carry out by law.
HUNTER-GAULT: But what about Senator Boschwitz's point that he just made that it's not really -- his point is -- not the point of a lot of others, but his point is that it's not a Burford problem; that the agency itself has a credibility problem, and this presents an opportunity to put in someone with better -- more credible credentials.
Sen. SIMPSON: I want to tell you I don't always agree with this rascal from Minnesota, and he's a very fine friend of mine. But look at this: look what's happening. The subcommittees and committees of the House are asking professional, career people to come forward from EPA with the thought of having a little chat down at the shop up on the Hill. They come -- these are career people; these are not political figures. They come and they're told to come because there will be no subpoena, and after they finish visiting with them, they subpoena them. Now, what do you think is happening at EPA with that? And I would certainly say Rudy's absolutely correct. You've got the agency in absolute turmoil, but don't anyone, I hope, in the listening audience believe that that was done by Anne Burford, because Congress has helped immeasurably to do that by freezing those people.
HUNTER-GAULT: Excuse me. Let me ask you this question then, and I need a brief answer. Congressman Michel has said that her credibility has been so undermined, and others have said this -- that she can't really effectively govern the agency, whatever position you take on the issues that have been raised. Can she govern the agency and the administrators that you've just referred to with this cloud hanging over the agency?
Sen. SIMPSON: I think that she has said herself that it's very difficult for her to do so, and the President of the United States will be the final determiner on that.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right, thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: Senator Boschwitz, do you see this as a fairness thing in terms of how Anne Burford should be treated now?
Sen. BOSCHWITA: No. I take the attitude that if you go to international conferences on the environment that we are not well represented there, that the scientists of other nations are on the leading edge of how to control the environment. We have many who are not associated with the EPA who are there with them, and they should be incorporated in the EPA. So it's not a matter of Mrs. Burford or not. I agree with Senator Simpson. I don't always agree, as he points out, but I agree with him that Mrs. Burford must be having a very hard time running the agency at this time. And all this, in my judgment, once again, presents an opportunity to improve the agency, improve its research, make in an agency that goes out and finds environmental difficulties rather than just responding to them. Everytime it makes a finding a lawsuit begins. That's not the way it is in other countries, and not the way it needs to be.
LEHRER: Senator Simpson, I know now that both of you are very good friends, so I hesitate to ask this question, but when you talked a moment ago about those who were lusting for blood, do you include Senator Boschwitz in those folks who are now calling for her ouster for whatever high-mined reasons to be part of the lusters for blood?
Sen. SIMPSON: No, I don't, and I don't want to leave it just provincially that the Senate is doing a responsible job. But one of the principal Senate committees is the Environment and Public Works Committee, and I think a very responsible job of oversight is taking place there with Chairman Stafford; Jennings Randolph, the ranking member; John Chafee; George Mitchell. They're doing, you know, a job of trying to elicit what's wrong, and instead of just throwing the old harpoon from 50 feet down the pier, saying, how can we better put this organization back together, instead of let's just have fun and games and get everybody juiced up about Anne Burford. That's what I'm saying. I think it's time to look at that and not just see fragmented attacks and, you know, night runs. I mean, the word shredder is supposed to make you salivate and your fange come out. Shredder has disappeared now. I don't know where shredder went, but we'll have son of shredder in another couple of days while we crank 'er up.
LEHRER: Let me ask each of you finally, regardless of what you think should happen, what do you think is going to happen in terms of Anne Burford, Senator?
Sen. BOSCHWITZ: Oh, I think that she probably is a short-term director of the EPA, and hopefully -- my whole purpose is, because I feel that way, that the next director should not be -- should be somewhat more scientifically bent so it's just not dragged into a whole bunch of hearings and that they continue along the same line they are now.
LEHRER: Senator Simpson, what do you think is going to happen?
Sen. SIMPSON: Well, I'll tell you waht I think is going to happen. They're going to stretch out the hearings and the inquiries probably into the next century if they can do that, and I think that that is a disservice not only to the agency but to her. And my hunch is that it's unfavorable to say that the honeymoon has ended, because it just started for her; but what a terrible strain she must be under --
LEHRER: Y/ou're referring to the fact that she recently got married.
Sen. SIMPSON: She just got married --
LEHRER: Changed her name fromGorsuch to Burford.
Sen. SIMPSON: But what a terrible strain she must be under as a fellow human being. That would be interesting to pursue by those who love the antics and know that the turmoil of a new marriage and that type of activity and then this must have her pretty frayed as a human.
LEHRER: I take it then you're saying that she probably will go?
Sen. SIMPSON: I don't know, but if -- she would have to be a very strong lady to stand up under it -- all the guff.
LEHRER: Thank you. Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: The Senator notwithstanding, there are congressional critics who believe that EPA has been mismanaged by Mrs. Burford, and they charge that EPA has failed to meet its legal mandate to clean up the environment. One of theose is Democaratic Congressman James Florio of New Jersey. Congressman Florio helped write the Superfund legislation. Congressman, you have called for a special prosecutor to look into the allegations surrounding the EPA. Why?
Rep. JAMES FLORIO: Well, you really have to separate the criticisms into two areas. One is a question of criminality, and that of course is the appropriate place where a special prosecutor would become involved, and in large measure so as to insure that there is an impartial, disinterested evaluation of potential criminal conduct which may have taken place at EPA.I think in many respects the much more forceful and telling criticism of EPA is that, particularly under Mrs. Gorsuch's leadership, is that we haven't seen very vigorous enforcement of the environmental laws in general, and Superfund in particular. Superfund, of course, is the fund designed to clean up toxic waste sites around the nation. We've had -- this is a five-year program, and Mrs. Gorsuch -- or Mrs. Burford has indicated that she sees no need for the program to be renewed. And yet, even though two years of the five years have gone by, we have cleaned up but four sites out of 14,000 that EPA says exist in the nation. So that I'm suggesting to you, and I have been a critic of EPA over the last two years in what I regarded as foot-dragging in getting about the effort of cleaning up the toxic waste sites. It is only in the last four or five weeks that we've seen this other evidence that comes out with regard to the actual motivation; that is, indications of conflicts of interest, questions of perjury, questions of political motivation and the implementation of the law. Those things, I think, rise to the level where a special prosecutor should be appointed and to get to the bottom of that.
HUNTER-GAULT: Do you know any -- have you seen any specific evidence supporting the charges of political manipulation or sweetheart deals or anything that would support the charges?
Rep. FLORIO: Oh, yes. I think there has been enough that the come out already that if we were talking about a normal criminal prosecution, a prosecutor ought to have more than enough evidence to go before a grand jury.
HUNTER-GAULT: Like? Give me an example of something.
Rep. FLORIO: Well, the fact of the California Stringfellow site where there is unquestioned evidence of the fact that the monies in that particular site were decided to be withheld because there were some EPA officials who felt that it might work in the interest of the Democratic candidate for the United States Senate. That's clearly an inappropriate consideration in determing whether monies should be allocated or not. In my own state, we have EPA enforcement officials sitting down, deliberating as to whether they should expedite a particular action so as to be of assistance to a senatorial candidate -- in my state. So those considerations, I think, have no place in making decisions with regard to cleaning up toxic waste.
HUNTER-GAULT: Do you know anything about the Dingell meeting with the Justice Department that was supposed to happen today and didn't come off? Do you know anything about why?
Rep. FLORIO: No, I'm afraid not.
HUNTER-GAULT: In your view, then, you feel that -- I would assume that you believe -- you're in the camp that believes Mrs. Burford should step down?
Rep. FLORIO: Well, I think it's in the interest of the nation that she step down because I'm not sure that EPA in the last two years has been really fully committed to the implementation of these laws. Mrs. Lavelle, of course, who was in charge of this program, was quoted on a number of occasions as indicating that vigorous enforcement of the law was not in the interests of the administration because it would adversely impact upon the major constituency of this administration -- according to Mrs. Lavelle -- the business community.
HUNTER-GAULT: So you think --
Rep. FLORIO: I happen to think that that's wrong from Mrs. Lavelle's standpoint as well as the administration's. But if that's the prevailing philosophy that operates in Superfund and at EPA, that's not in the public interest.
HUNTER-GAULT: And, in a word, you believe that that is the prevailing philosophy that operates within the Superfund and the EPA?
Rep. FLORIO: Well, I think in terms of the record in cleaning up toxic waste sites, the record can't be put forth as evidence of a very vigorous enforcement policy in cleaning up the sites that are scattered around the nation.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Jim?
LEHRER: Senator Simpson, you see it the same way, that that's the guiding influence at EPA and the Reagan administration?
Sen. SIMPSON: No, but I would say that, you know, you might want to look at the fact that when the government makes the commitment to commit the Superfund money, you've got to have local support. We put it in the law. He helped draft it, so did I. It means the municipality has got to cough up 10, 20, 30, 40, maybe 50 percent; and in over 50 of those sites that are so-called, you know, the subject of all of us expiring in this rubbish is the fact that local communities have not chosen to toady up the bucks.So when they don't today up the bucks, you can't move the federal government forward.
LEHRER: Is that true, Congressman, in your opinion?
Rep. FLORIO: No, not that it's not true, but the fact of the matter is there are numerous states -- my own being one -- that have gone to the trouble of enacting their own Superfund funds, what we call the Spill Fund, that assesses companies, and we have raised substantial amounts of money. We are more than prepared to go forward with the 10% match that's required, and yet not a penny has been spent in two years on actual remedial work.
LEHRER: Senator Boschwitz, what about Congressman Florio's call for a special prosecutor to clear the air around possible criminal charges?
Sen. BOSCHWITZ: Well, if that's appropriate, that's okay with me, but in that case we ought to appoint a special assistant at the White House, too, so we move it away from the agency. We're still interested primarily in cleaning up the environment, and if we're going to politicize the whole thing even more than it is presently being politicized, let's move it out from the agency so the agency can continue doing its business.
Rep. FLORIO: Well, I just wanted to offer, perhaps as evidence of my opinion and others' opinion that EPA has not been very vigorous and enthusiastic in implementing Superfund, the fact that the standards for cleanup were due in June of 1981; they were published a year overdue after someone had to sue. The priority list of 418 sites around the nation was a year and a half overdue when it was published as a result of someone suing.We have a provision in the law that provides for an agency for monitoring the impact on health of individuals of exposure to toxic waste. That's yet to be done, and it's required under the law, and again, there are lawsuits. This is not a record that demonstrates a whole lot of zealous commitment to the law.
Sen. SIMPSON: Well, what about the fact that she put on new enforcers and that she expended 81% of the funds that were available in Superfund? Where did that go?
Rep. FLORIO: The fact of the matter is, there's a very legitimate question where it went. The GAO study just came out, and $50 million is unable to be accounted for. And the expending of 81% is really not correct. The actual expenditures which have taken place have been -- there'll be $850 million raised by October and $100 million --
LEHRER. Gentlemen, we don't have much time left. Let me ask you, Senator Simpson. What do you think about the question on a special prosecutor? Do you think it warrants that?
Sen. SIMPSON: I don't know that it does. I know that it does call for some sane oversight instead of just, you know, hype. And I think we ought to be about that.
LEHRER: Yeah, but I mean, who should do it? Should the Justice Department do it?
Sen. SIMPSON: I think that the committees that have direct responsibility should do it, not fragmented subcommittees who are looking for a little, you know, spore and blood along the ground, and that when things are found --
LEHRER: You think that's what Congressman Florio is doing?
Sen. SIMPSON: I don't know. No, he's a very vigorous guy. He's a hard charger. I know him as that. But I'm just saying that if things come up that are criminal intent or something's amiss, give it to the Justice Department; that's what we ought to be doing with it, to see what they do with it. I don't think that they're so linked up with EPA that they can't function as a Justice Department, not the Attorney General.
LEHRER: Congressman Florio, what about Senator Boschwitz's idea that if Anne Burford goes, for whatever reason, that she ought to be replaced by a scientist, not a "political" type person?
Rep. FLORIO: Well, I'm not sure about the question of being a scientist or not. I think what is important is that the administration is going to get this problem behind it, and it should, in its own interest as well as in the interest of the people. We have to have someone there who is of unquestioned credentials with regard to a commitment in the environment. Ruckelshaus, Trian, Peterson, those are all good Republicans.
LEHRER: We have to go. Good night, Charlayne.
HUNTER-GAULT: Good night, Jim.
LEHRER: See you tomorrow night. I'm Jim Lehrer. Thank you and good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
- EPA's Future
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- This episode's headline: EPA's Future. The guests include Sen. RUDY BOSCHWITZ, Republican, Minnesota; Sen. ALAN SIMPSON, Republican, Wyoming; Rep. JAMES FLORIO, Democrat, New Jersey. Byline: In New York: CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, Correspondent; In Washington: JIM LEHRER, Associate Editor; LEWIS SILVERMAN, Producer; MAURA LERNER, GORDON EARLE, Reporters
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- MLA: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; EPA's Future.” 1983-03-08. National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 8, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-sx6445j972>.
- APA: The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; EPA's Future. Boston, MA: National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-sx6445j972