With Superfund revamp imminent, the EPA's new chief steps into big shoes

For Lee M. Thomas, the good news is that his promotion has finally become official. The bad news is that his new job is one of the toughest in Washington. Mr. Thomas, confirmed by the Senate Feb. 7 as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, inherits an ``IN'' box full of difficult questions, such as how to raise money for toxic waste clean-up and how to regulate smokestack emissions.

``The issues in this agency,'' he says, ``are not easy to deal with.''

Thomas's task is all the tougher because of the act he must follow. His predecessor, William Ruckleshaus, is widely credited with having restored an agency that had plunged into chaos during the early Reagan years.

Mr. Thomas and Mr. Ruckleshaus are both quite tall, but outward similarities cease there. While Ruckelshaus is a philosophical Yankee, Thomas is a management-oriented Southerner. Asked about his goals at a lunch with a small group of reporters, Thomas spoke in terms of management, enforcement, and ``institutionalizing process and procedures.''

For Thomas, Senate confirmation was about as easy as such things can be; it was whooped through on a voice vote, after a quick hearing. Formerly head of the agency's hazardous waste programs, he actually has been running EPA for about seven weeks. So far, he says, he has been spending much time getting ready for the coming debate on the ``Superfund'' toxic-waste cleanup program and studying the problem of toxic air pollutants, in response to the recent chemical tragedy in Bhopal, India.

Superfund will come to a head first. Taxing authority for the program expires this year and must be reauthorized. Many observers predict this will be the number one environmental issue of this year. Thomas says the administration is struggling to put together a Superfund proposal. ``I'm really hoping to have it finished for a Senate hearing'' scheduled for later this month, he says.

In his fiscal 1986 budget, President Reagan proposes spending some $4.2 billion on such cleanups through 1988. But nailing down the details of this proposal, Thomas concedes, is an extraordinarily difficult task.

``How big should the program be?'' he asks, rhetorically. ``How effectively can you manage it? How do you raise the revenue? What kind of specific standards do you have for cleanup?'' Debate on these questions is still raging in the administration, and Thomas says he can't assure anyone when a White House Superfund proposal will be all dressed up and ready to go.

The tragic release of toxic gas at Bhopal has raised numerous questions about environmental regulation in the US, and sent Congress scrambling to determine the chances of a similar event here.

EPA has assembled a task force to study the incident, Thomas notes. ``What's clear to me is that when you talk about air toxics, there are at least two major components you have to look at.''

The first category is ``chronic air toxics,'' he says. It refers to the chemicals themselves and EPA's efforts to identify and regulate them. The Clean Air Act mandates this admittedly tough task, but after years of effort, the EPA has listed as ``toxic'' and set standards for fewer than 10 air pollutants.

Work in this area will speed up, Thomas vows. ``I guess we've got 20 to 25 [chemicals] we'll be looking at this year and making a list or no-list decision.''

The second category of air-toxic problems involves ``acute episodic release.'' In other words, accidents. He says that in the past not enough thought has been given to US strategy for preventing such tragedies, and the agency has launched a review of the problem.

In six weeks the new EPA chief hopes to have on his desk a report on whether ``we think there's a new regulation or statutory revisions that need to be made.''

On Feb. 14 EPA issued final rules for when accidental spills of any of 160 chemicals must be reported to the government. The agency is also nearing completion of a longterm study of 15,000 chemicals, Thomas notes.

Other comments made by Thomas in the wide-ranging session with reporters:

On acid rain: ``I know a lot more about it now, but I'm not at the point where I'd suggest that we make some departure from the course we're on.''

On laws giving residents the right to know what toxics are produced in their midst: ``I can see some legitimacy to the kind of concerns I've read about, as far as the community's right to know.''

On relations with the Office of Management and Budget, which recently gained even more power to review proposed environmental legislation: ``When we think we're right, and they don't agree, then we're going to elevate it [to higher officials in the administration.] That way we don't go on forever at a fairly low level.''

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