Embattled EPA chief resigned. It was 35 years ago

Source: Robin Bravender, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The headlines were terrible for U.S. EPA.

“EPA in ‘State of Shock and Paranoia.'”

“Chronology of EPA controversy.”

“Headed Out? Events point to departure of EPA chief, many say.”

“White House Looking to Control EPA Problem.”

It was 1983.

The headlines are remarkably similar to those dominating major news outlets in recent weeks as scandals surrounding EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt have endangered his job. And they’ve sparked a sense of déjà vu for those who were close to the Reagan-era drama.

“It’s like a rerun,” said Caroline Isber, who was executive director of a group called Save EPA during the early Reagan years.

The episode didn’t end well for President Reagan’s first EPA boss, Anne Gorsuch Burford, a Colorado lawmaker tasked with carrying out the president’s promises to slash government spending and ease federal regulations. She resigned in March 1983 after her agency came under fire for being too cozy with industry and manipulating the Superfund program for political purposes.

Early in the Trump administration, Pruitt drew comparisons to Burford for his plans to roll back rules and slash EPA’s budget. For now, Pruitt appears to be clinging to his job — hoping to avoid becoming the second EPA chief to leave under a cloud of controversy. Burford’s political career never recovered. She diedof cancer in 2004 at age 62.

Pruitt and Burford have some things in common. They came in as rising Republican stars committed to cutting down the size of government. They both pushed massive EPA budget cuts. They were both state politicians with no experience working inside the EPA bureaucracy. And they share a reputation for insulating themselves from EPA’s career staff and promoting a culture of secrecy within the office.

They both made enemies in the ranks of the career staff. Burford was known as the “Ice Queen.” Pruitt was called a “swamp monster” in a poster taped in an EPA elevator last week (Climatewire, April 5).

‘Odd smell in the air’

One major difference between then and now: the power structure on Capitol Hill.

Democrats controlled the House in 1983, and former Michigan Democratic Rep. John Dingell was chairman of a subcommittee overseeing EPA.

“We had John Dingell looking out for us,” said Ruth Greenspan Bell, a former employee in EPA’s Office of General Counsel. She’s now working for the Environmental Protection Network — a reincarnation of the Save EPA group from the 1980s — which is focused on fighting cuts to the agency’s budget.

“The dynamic was quite different from what’s going on now,” Bell said.

Burford’s resignation came after an epic battle with lawmakers. She was cited for contempt of Congress after refusing to hand over Superfund records. Democrats in Congress are irate with Pruitt, and many of them are calling for his ouster (in addition to a few House Republicans), but Democrats don’t currently hold gavels or subpoena power.

Bell remembers going back into the office after Burford left on March 9.

“There was a daylong expression of great relief,” she said. She came to the office a little late. “I had a dentist appointment or something — and there was an odd smell in the air when there’s a little bit of wine or something. I went up to my office, and it was clear that people were just schmoozing and taking in this great moment that they were released from or thought they had been released from this very difficult situation they had all been putting up with.”

After Burford’s ouster, the Reagan administration changed its approach toward EPA, bringing back Bill Ruckelshaus — who was EPA’s first leader under President Nixon. The move to bring in a centrist revered by many agency staffers was seen as an attempt to quell public outrage over the EPA scandals.

Ruckelshaus spoke to about 1,000 agency employees on March 22 of that year at EPA’s headquarters, which was then at the Waterside Mall in southwest Washington.

The Washington Postran a story the next day titled, “Hero’s welcome.” Some employees held a banner that said, “How do you spell relief? RUCKELSHAUS.” One staffer told him through tears, “I’m so happy you’re back, I missed you.”

‘Open the whole thing up’

Ruckelshaus, who now lives outside Seattle, has been watching the Pruitt drama unfold from afar.

“I feel very strongly about the agency and how it’s faring under all this,” he told E&E News in an interview last week.

“I know it affects the morale of the people. I knew that more obviously when I went back in [the 1980s] than today, but some of the same stuff. And it’s really hard for the people who stay there to function when the administrator is not sympathetic with the mission.”

He doesn’t expect Pruitt to lose his job over the recent controversies.

“It very much depends on their attitude about it and if they think it’s bad enough they may let him go. But my sense from the way he’s functioning and the way he seems to be supported by the president, that’s not going to happen,” he said.

He thinks this has all been embarrassing for the agency and that trust in EPA needs to be restored.

“The agency has got to be clearly doing what it’s supposed to be doing. And the only way to restore trust is to open the whole thing up. That’s what we did back in the ’80s,” he said.

Back then, he held monthly lunch meetings with the press. “They’d all come up, it was completely on the record, anything they wanted to ask was all right with me. They used to all show up for fear that somebody would say something important,” he said, laughing.

And he cleaned house of some of the embattled Reagan EPA aides, bringing in the staff he wanted. He recalled telling the president, “I know where these people are, and I can find them and I think I can bring them back. And he looked at me and he said, ‘Well, go ahead. Obviously we don’t know what we’re doing.'”

Ruckelshaus declined to say whether Pruitt deserves to lose his job over the latest ethics controversies. “I resist very hard telling him what to do.”

But he’s worried that the scandals will “deflect our attention away from what really is serious, and that is not putting any attention into the infrastructure that we’ve put in place for 40 years and really destroying it, that’s serious.”

Ruckelshaus said he won’t be brought in for a third stint as EPA boss. “Eighty-five is the cutoff date for going back to EPA,” he said. He turned 85 last July.