EPA to be swept clean before new chief arrives

It's spring cleaning time at the Environmental Protection Agency. The White House, bucket in hand, hopes to scrub all trace of scandal from the EPA before the arrival of the agency's new administrator, William Ruckelshaus.

Last week's mass resignation of top EPA employees was a major step in this cleanup. Three of the departed officials were being investigated by Congress for possible wrongdoing:

* John Hernandez Jr., acting administrator, blocked a cleanup of lead-contaminated playgrounds in Dallas, EPA regional officials charge. He also has been criticized for allowing Dow Chemical Company to edit a draft report on dioxins.

* Robert Perry, general counsel, has been accused of possible perjury before Congress.

* John Todhunter, assistant administrator for toxic substances, has drawn congressional fire for being too chummy with industry officials.

President Reagan said Friday that they resigned because they ''feel there's more of a chance for the agency working by leaving.'' However, the resignations were leaked in advance by White House officials, who say it is important that all controversial EPA employees be swept out before Mr. Ruckelshaus assumes the agency's top spot. And Ruckelshaus, as a condition for taking the job, insisted on being able to surround himself with his own choices for second- and third-level agency slots.

Those jobs already have been swept fairly clean. Thirteen EPA political appointees have resigned since January. Only two of six assistant administrator spots, for instance, are still filled by the original Reagan appointees.

But agency critics say there's a little more scrubbing to be done. There are ''two or three other (second- and third-level employees) who will go and who need to go,'' says a congressional source involved in the EPA investigations.

Environmentalists and congressional staff members say they'll pay close attention to the type of people picked to fill empty EPA posts. To bolster morale at the agency, the administration needs to appoint people who have a better understanding of the agency's mission, says Carolyn Isber of SAVE EPA, a watchdog group of former Carter administration officials. One good leader isn't enough, she says.

But the Ruckelshaus appointment has demonstrably boosted spirits at EPA. At a meet-the-boss speech last week, Ruckelshaus received a thunderous ovation. ''He made the employees feel good about themselves,'' says David Hawkins, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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