Reagan's EPA policy problems linger on even though Burford is out
Washington — The Reagan administration's troubles with the EPA affair are far from over. The hurried resignation of Anne Burford as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency - carried out in Mr. Reagan's private quarters after hours Wednesday evening - was possibly a useful act of White House damage control. The same could be said about the apparent decision to open EPA files to congressional inquirers.
But reactions here to Mrs. Burford's exit indicate no letup in efforts to probe the administration's role in alleged political manipulation of toxic-cleanup funds, as well as other charges. Old source of antagonism
Fueling the EPA storm is a host of environmental and political grievances against the Reagan administration. They go back to its first official acts, typified in the appointment of James Watt as secretary of the Interior Department. To environmentalists, the Watt appointment was a needlessly abrasive and confrontational act. And Mrs. Burford's appointment was strongly backed by Mr. Watt.
''I became the issue,'' Mrs. Burford claimed.
But neither Mrs. Burford nor Secretary Watt, who was present with presidential counselor Edwin Meese III in the President's private quarters during the resignation, were the primary targets in the larger battle over environmental policy, the administration's antagonists charge.
''I see no reason why she should resign,'' said Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, the senior House committee chairman investigating the EPA. ''I'm aware of no wrongdoing on her part that should compel that.'' Later he added: ''She is taking the fall for carrying out clearly what are the administration's policies.''
From the White House's point of view, Mrs. Burford's exit makes it possible to appoint a new administrator. She will be left - like Rita Lavelle, earlier fired by Reagan after allegations of missteps in her administration of the toxic cleanup Superfund - to fend for herself before official House inquiries.
One regrettable aspect of this, White House insiders say, is that the two ousted officials are both women. To cut them loose, after Reagan stood by top aides like former national security adviser Richard V. Allen and Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan for long periods until they were cleared of charges of wrongdoing, could underscore feelings among women that the administration is chauvinistic.
''We're trying to close the gender gap, not open it,'' says one Reaganite.
''There's no doubt the EPA thing is hurting,'' concedes a member of the Reagan team. ''It hurts us with the public, and it's an activating force for the Democrats. It's not Burford's policies, it's Reagan's they're after. . . .''
The decision to free up EPA files was absolutely critical, Reaganites say.They recognize, too, that administration actions will be closely watched to see just how ''open'' such files prove to be.
For many, the episode carried echoes of the Nixon administration's efforts to quash the Watergate inquiry, GOP insiders say. With the onset of the '84 campaign and a Republican reelection effort - either Reagan's, as now expected, or another contender's - it is necessary to relieve tensions, not heighten them, and avoid any appearance of obstructing congressional probes into the EPA matter.
Both sides of the political aisle recognize the political dynamite in the EPA affair .
''The EPA is potentially the biggest problem this administration has had,'' says a Democratic strategist who helped direct President Carter's campaign and will shortly sign on with one of the 1984 Democratic contenders. ''It carries with it a lot of clout.'' Broad support for cleanup efforts
Even within the Republican Party, deep feelings over fundamental Reagan environmental policy play a big part in the EPA controversy.
As Republican legislators point out, the environmental movement has always been a bipartisan effort. Issues like acid rain, clean water, and toxic wastes have strong pro-environment advocates in Republican ranks. Also, environmentalists have begun to move toward pro-jobs positions more recently to ease tensions between promoters of economic growth and environmental protection values.
In broad terms, Americans still have a high regard for environmental values. An ABC/Washington Post survey, taken Feb. 25 to March 2, showed that a majority of Americans think President Reagan would rather protect polluters than clean up the environment. Some 54 percent think he cares more about protecting firms that violate antipollution laws than about enforcing those laws. Twenty-seven percent think he cares more about enforcing the laws.