Democrats map out environmental agenda for '84

Relative calm has descended on Waterside Mall, the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency. Gangs of reporters no longer stalk the building's halls in search of beleaguered officials or a stray paper shredder. Former administrator Anne Burford is long gone, her only visible legacy T-shirts sported by some employees that boast ''I Survived The Ice Queen's Acid Reign.'' William D. Ruckelshaus, the new agency chief, has so far said nothing to inflame EPA's many critics.

But the environment is still very much a live issue in Washington, though the volume of public debate has dropped. Even as Mr. Ruckelshaus takes control, Democrats are scrambling to take further advantage of environmental issues. For example:

* They're trying to pump more money into EPA than President Reagan wants. Last week, the Democratic-controlled House voted to give EPA $1.3 billion in operating funds for next fiscal year. That would just about restore the agency's operating budget to its pre-Reagan-era level.

* They're also pressing Interior Secretary James G. Watt on the controversial issue of coal leasing. The House is forging ahead with measures to halt leasing of federal lands for coal mining for six months to a year. ''Don't kid yourself, '' sputters a coal company vice-president, ''this is a partisan political problem.''

* And, in a preview of how environmental issues may play in the 1984 campaign , the Democratic presidential candidates have all said they favor restrictions on pollutants suspected of causing acid rain. The administration says more study is needed before taking action.

''We wanted to make acid rain into a national issue,'' says an aide to Rep. Norman E. D'Amours (D) of New Hampshire, who sent a letter to the candidates asking their position on the issue. ''If it allows Democrats to establish distance from the President on the environment, fine.''

But the most immediate environmental tussle will likely be over the EPA's budget.

Ruckelshaus, since assuming his new position, has indicated he's likely to favor some sort of modest increase in his agency's budget. In fact, he asked Congress to delay action on EPA funds as a ''personal courtesy'' until he could draft his own recommendations.

But environmentalists, some Democratic House chairmen, and other critics of administration environmental policy have long said that their top priority is restoring all the funds whacked out of EPA's budget since 1981. So last week the House went ahead and approved a budget amendment offered by Rep. Tim Wirth (D) of Colorado that would do just that.

But, as Sierra Club lobbyist Larry Williams admits, EPA is not yet in ''fat city.'' The Republican-controlled Senate will likely pay more attention to Ruckelshaus's request than the House did. And the appropriations bill that contains EPA's funds may be vetoed by the President, since it currently includes

Moving from government spending to government income, a General Accounting Office report charging that the Interior Department leased federal coal lands at ''fire sale'' prices has led the House to try to temporarily ban the leasing.

A House subcommittee has voted to cut off the program's funds. A bill introduced by Rep. Morris Udall (D) of Arizona would simply prohibit leasing for a year. Frustrated coal executives say the target is not coal, but the Interior Secretary.

''It's Jim Watt,'' agrees a Democratic House aide. ''It's his problem.''

New leases on federal coal fields were prohibited for much of the 1970s, as Washington struggled to design a leasing program with adequate environmental safeguards. Another ban would almost certainly be vetoed by the President.

Meanwhile, a portent of Democrats' intentions to seize the initiative on environmental issues in '84 can be seen in the attention accorded acid rain.

Acid rain is an important issue in New Hampshire, scene of the first presidential primary - so the Democratic candidates are falling all over themselves to address the problem. Almost all of them say Midwestern power plants are a chief culprit. Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio wants to pay for correcting acid rain's effects by taxes on electric power.

Reagan says more study is needed to prove that coal burned in Ohio is polluting lakes farther east.

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