EPA flap grows louder despite White House attempts to mute it

Like a rolling snowball that just gets bigger and bigger, Congress's investigations of the Environmental Protection Agency are gaining momentum with a speed that has taken nearly everyone involved by surprise.

While congressional sources say they as yet have no hard evidence that EPA administrator Anne Burford has done anything illegal, her position is apparently becoming increasingly tenuous. White House efforts to stop the chaos have so far had little effect.

''The White House really has the damage control team out now,'' says one congressional source. ''But we're not convinced this shuffling is going to make any difference at all,'' adds another.

The controversy began last October, when Congress first asked to see certain EPA documents dealing with hazardous waste cleanup efforts. Since the turn of the year, however, the scope of congressional investigations has broadened with amazing rapidity.

Six congressional committees, including a Republican-controlled Senate panel, are now part of the hunt. The charges they are investigating include manipulation of hazardous-waste cleanups for political purposes, sloppy record-keeping of spending from the Superfund (the $1.6 billion fund set aside by Congress for cleaning up hazardous-waste dumps), perjury and conflict of interest among high EPA officials, and a conservative tilt in appointing scientists to EPA advisory panels.

White House efforts to slow the snowballing criticism have so far had little effect.

Allowing Congress access to the disputed documents which started the whole affair did not mute the situation. And last week's personnel shuffle at EPA, with the White House replacing four top officials with fresh faces, has not given Mrs. Burford and the embattled agency hoped-for ''breathing space.''

In the latest development, the President agreed to make ''any and all documents'' requested by Congress available. This was in reponse to letter from Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, who chairs one of the subcommittees investigating EPA.

''(The White House) jumped into this never expecting what would follow,'' says a congressional source involved in the investigation.

The latest tightening of the screw - the disclosure by Representative Dingell that he had uncovered evidence of ''potential criminal conduct'' at EPA - did not draw a specific response from the White House.

Mr. Dingell urged criminal prosecution of former EPA assistant administrator Rita Lavelle, saying he had evidence she had committed perjury before Congress. He also said he had sworn statements from past and current EPA officials indicating that political motivations might have influenced Superfund allocations.

In California with the President, White House spokesman Speakes said tersely that any evidence in Dingell's possession should be turned over to the Justice Department.

Administration officials have said repeatedly that they believe much of the hue and cry about EPA on Capitol Hill is motivated by a desire for media attention.

But there is growing evidence that White House support for Mrs. Burford is not absolute. Craig Fuller, secretary to the Cabinet, said in a Washington Post interview that firing Mrs. Burford is ''an option that remains open.''

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