Made-for-Washington epic starring EPA and Congress

If you think ''The Winds of War'' is hard to follow, take a look at ''The Winds of Waste'' - a Washington mini-drama starring EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch, ex-deputy administrator Rita Lavelle, Congress, and a California sludge pit.

The story so far: Congress is threatening to throw Mrs. Gorsuch in jail, because she won't hand over certain documents dealing with hazardous waste cleanup efforts. Gorsuch has fired Miss Lavelle, whose responsibilities included EPA's hazardous waste program. Despite California's pleas, the sludge pit has not yet been cleaned up, for reasons that may or may not be related to former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s '82 Senate campaign, which ended in defeat.

Compared with this, World War II had a simple story line. And the plot is thickening:

* The House of Representatives is opening a second front in its war on Gorsuch. The two parties are tussling over Superfund, the $1.6 billion hazardous waste cleanup program, which many in Congress feel is not being enthusiasticaly administered by EPA.

Last year, the House held Gorsuch in contempt when, per White House orders, she claimed ''executive privilege'' and refused to give Superfund files to the Public Works Committee. On Thursday, another House committee investigating Superfund - Energy and Commerce - met in closed session and voted to subpoena Gorsuch and other EPA officials.

''We're starting a two-pronged approach,'' chortles a congressional aide involved in the dispute. Four other committees may launch similar attacks.

* Meanwhile, the White House has offered to open peace talks. White House chief of staff James Baker III was to offer the Public Works Committee a compromise concerning the disputed Superfund documents on Friday.

Last week, a federal judge threw out an administration suit that would have blocked House prosecution of Gorsuch. This loss may have had much to do with the sudden White House willingness to negotiate.

''The landscape for negotiation has dramatically changed,'' says Stanley Brand, chief counsel to the House clerk. ''Anything less than full and total (disclosure of the documents) won't be acceptable to the House.''

Still to come in this epic are answers to a number of crucial questions.

Will Anne Gorsuch go to jail? The EPA administrator, by being held in contempt of Congress, is technically liable to Justice Department criminal prosecution and a jail sentence.

It is unlikely, however, that Gorsuch will be hauled away in handcuffs from EPA's waterfront headquarters. Though this argument over the executive branch's right to withhold information from Congress has progressed farther than any such dispute since Watergate, members of Congress insist they're not looking for a constitutional showdown. And, as Mr. Baker's peace feeler indicates, the White House stance is not immovable.

Why was Rita Lavelle fired? Gorsuch said Thursday on ABC that Lavelle was dismissed because ''I lost confidence in her ability to manage (the Superfund).''

Lavell, however, has been accused by some members of Congress of harassing EPA ''whistleblowers'' and then lying about her actions before a congressional committee. There is also the question of a possible conflict of interest concerning the California waste dump, the Stringfellow Acid Pits. FromUFquoteThough the argument has progressed farther than any such dispute since Watergate, members of Congress say they're not looking for a showdown.

1979 until she joined EPA, Lavelle worked for Aerojet-General Corporation, a source of some of the hazardous now resting at Stringfellow.

She has gone incommunicado since her firing last week.

''Obviously, the Lavelle exit raises many, many questions,'' says an aide to the chairman of a subcommittee that's pursuing EPA.

Why hasn't the Stringfellow acid dump been cleaned up? Last July, California asked for EPA help in cleaning up this acutely messy waste dump. The EPA hasn't yet lent a hand.

Three dissident EPA officials charge the delay was caused by administration fears that cleaning up Stringfellow would inadvertently aid the unsuccessful Senate campaign of Democratic Governor Brown, who might have claimed he'd had a hand in obtaining federal cleanup aid.

Gorsuch denies political considerations had any influence on the decision. She said Thursday that it took time for EPA to decide whether the agency should simply pay for the cleanup, or whether it should sue companies that contributed to the mess to force them to aid in the mop-up operation.

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