Congress Cites Environmental Protection Agency Chief for Contempt Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Anne Gorsuch, director of the Environmental Protection Agency, was cited for contempt of Congress after refusing to release documents for an inquiry into the Superfund, the federal toxic-waste cleanup program. She and twenty top aides, including Rita Lavelle, assistant EPA administrator, were either fired or forced to resign from the EPA.

Summary of Event

Ann Gorsuch was appointed on May 20, 1981, to the position of administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the first woman to head the agency. She had served in the Colorado legislature for two terms and was a district attorney in Denver, but she had no experience managing large organizations nor any background in environmental work. In the legislature, she had been a member of a group that advocated states’ rights and opposed federal environmental and energy policies. [kw]Environmental Protection Agency Chief for Contempt, Congress Cites (Dec. 16, 1982) Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 Environmental Protection Agency Gorsuch, Anne Dingell, John Lavelle, Rita Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 Environmental Protection Agency Gorsuch, Anne Dingell, John Lavelle, Rita [g]United States;Dec. 16, 1982: Congress Cites Environmental Protection Agency Chief for Contempt[02030] [c]Government;Dec. 16, 1982: Congress Cites Environmental Protection Agency Chief for Contempt[02030] [c]Corruption;Dec. 16, 1982: Congress Cites Environmental Protection Agency Chief for Contempt[02030] [c]Environmental issues;Dec. 16, 1982: Congress Cites Environmental Protection Agency Chief for Contempt[02030] [c]Business;Dec. 16, 1982: Congress Cites Environmental Protection Agency Chief for Contempt[02030] [c]Politics;Dec. 16, 1982: Congress Cites Environmental Protection Agency Chief for Contempt[02030] Ruckelshaus, William

Gorsuch was appointed the head of the EPA by President Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;and Environmental Protection Agency[Environmental Protection Agency] Ronald Reagan, who directed the new appointee to weaken the EPA’s ability to oversee industry. The EPA had been created during the 1970’s to consolidate government offices responsible for protecting public health and safeguarding the environment. Many members of the U.S. Congress opposed the agenda set by Gorsuch, and she was soon dogged with charges that she was planning to cut the agency’s budget by 40 percent. When she suspended a regulatory ban on the disposal of toxic waste in containers in landfills, Congress members considered the suspension a gross miscalculation. Gorsuch enacted a new ban after eighteen days of strong media scrutiny and discussion. Similarly, she devoted time to trying to phase out federal clean-air regulations, an effort thwarted by Congress.

An advocate of budgetary cuts and regulatory reform, Gorsuch did manage to drop the EPA’s budget by $200 million and cut its staff by 23 percent, firing over one thousand people. She scattered the staff responsible for enforcement of EPA regulations among other programs, removing the EPA’s ability to keep pollution in check.

While Gorsuch treated other EPA officials with aloofness, industry representatives found her door always open to them. When a proposal surfaced to phase out lead as an additive to gasoline, scientists and representatives from Ethyl Corporation, a company that manufactures fuel additives, met with her to express concerns that requiring a drop in lead levels would result in the closing of refineries and increased wear on automobile engines while not doing much to improve public health. Gorsuch finished the hearing by allegedly winking when asked if she had any plans to actually enforce the regulations.

This type of behavior by Gorsuch, signaling her complicity with industry, led to questions about her use of agency funds. In the summer of 1982, Representative John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, began an inquiry into reports that the EPA was being run through “political manipulation . . . interwoven with absurd incompetence.” Dingell’s inquiry was focused primarily on Rita Lavelle, a political appointee and EPA associate administrator in charge of the program formed by the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (better known as Superfund).

Superfund was formed to address chemical poisons in the environment. It was based on an EPA survey that had identified more than 250 hazardous-waste sites involving damages or significant threat of damages, and it was the only EPA program whose budget was untouched by Gorsuch. Under her leadership, the EPA announced national guidelines for cleaning up abandoned hazardous-waste sites and set up a $1.6 billion trust fund over five years, financed by taxes on the manufacture of some toxic chemicals and general revenues appropriated by Congress. The EPA also passed a rule requiring that schools test for asbestos in their buildings.

Lavelle had numerous corporate ties to chemical and aerospace companies. She had failed to cooperate with Dingell’s investigation, which was looking into the misuse of Superfund monies for political purposes and irregularities at a major perchlorate toxic waste site, the Stringfellow Acid Pits in Riverside, California. (Perchlorate, an oxidizer used in rocket fuel, affects the human thyroid gland.) Dingell’s investigation also uncovered secret meetings with the Monsanto Company and other corporations that dealt with regulatory matters. Monsanto, a leading manufacturer of herbicides and other chemicals, had actively worked to mask the dangers of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, by funding nonexistent public-interest groups to defend its interests and publicizing statements such as that made by a Monsanto toxicologist. He had declared that “There has never been a single documented case in this country where PCBs have been shown to cause cancer or any other serious human health problems.” He went on to compare PCBs to ordinary table salt.

In September, Dingell requested EPA documents on Superfund sites but the agency withheld the documents on the advice of the Justice Department. Dingell then subpoenaed Gorsuch to appear before investigators with the requested documents; she refused. After a second attempt to subpoena her, President Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;and Environmental Protection Agency[Environmental Protection Agency] Reagan intervened on November 30 and told her not to comply with the request. On December 16, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 259-105 in favor of a contempt of Congress citation against Gorsuch, but the Justice Department, also led by Reagan appointees, refused to prosecute.

In early 1983, the House voted 413-0 in favor of a contempt of Congress citation against Lavelle for refusing to appear before a House investigatory committee. She was fired by Reagan, was later acquitted of the contempt charge, and was convicted of perjury in a separate trial on December 1. She served three months of a six-month sentence.

On March 9, 1983, Gorsuch resigned as EPA director, adding in her announcement that congressional investigators now had ready access to the documents they had been seeking since the summer of 1982. She later would claim that her time with the EPA had been hampered by the agency’s lack of management skills and outdated priorities. At the same time, her colleagues charged that she had in turn delayed energy development decisions by demanding direct control over all decision making processes rather than leaving them to be made at the state and regional level. They went on to say that Gorsuch had made herself inaccessible to the EPA’s regular staff and had barricaded herself with a wall of assistants with connections to Secretary of the Interior James Watt, the Adolph Coors Company, and the Reagan campaign, all with limited to no experience with environmental issues.

Lavelle was involved in later criminal investigations and convicted in 2004 of one count of wire fraud and two counts of making misleading statements to FBI investigators. She served time in prison for this conviction as well. Gorsuch was appointed by Reagan to head the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and the Atmosphere, but she turned down the appointment. She wrote Are You Tough Enough? (1986) and then returned to law practice. In 2004, she died from cancer.

Impact

Gorsuch was replaced by William Ruckelshaus, who had served as the EPA’s first director. The National Resources Defense Council sued the EPA in 1983 for violations related to secret meetings and collusion with industry leaders. The EPA agreed to end the practice of secret negotiations and private deal-making. The new regulations forbid the EPA from allowing industry negotiations to affect its decisions whenever it evaluates or registers high-risk pesticides.

Ruckelshaus, as interim director, established the EPA’s so-called fishbowl policy, providing public participation in policy-making activities, and created a recusal policy to avoid conflicts of interest caused by his association with the timber company Weyerhaeuser and with Monsanto, among others. His appointment calendar was made public each week, as were those of other key EPA officials.

In an interview with the EPA History Office, Ruckelshaus observed that the Reagan administration’s

avowed purpose of lessening the impact of regulation on society really had the opposite effect, at least with respect to the environment. To the extent it acted at all, Congress increased the degree of regulation, imposing new restrictions on flexibility and on the administration of the states.

In the years after Gorsuch’s tenure with the EPA, Congress passed prescriptive environmental legislation, believing that loosely worded amendments would be abused by administrations for whom the environment was not a priority. The acts included an amendment to the Hazardous and Solid Waste Act Hazardous and Solid Waste Act of 1984 (1984), amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1986 Safe Drinking Water Act (1986), amendments and reauthorization of the Superfund Act of 1986 Superfund Act (1986), and the Water Quality Act of 1987 Water Quality Act (1987). Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 Environmental Protection Agency Gorsuch, Anne Dingell, John Lavelle, Rita

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Collin, Robert W. The Environmental Protection Agency: Cleaning Up America’s Act. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006. This book documents the history of the Environmental Protection Agency and reviews some of its most notable cases. Includes a detailed biography of Gorsuch and her brief tenure at the EPA.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Devra Lee. When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution. New York: Basic Books, 2004. Includes discussion of Gorsuch’s tenure with the EPA and the Reagan administration’s approach to pollution in historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Haynes. Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Coverage of the multiple scandals that arose during the Reagan administration. Gorsuch is mentioned in passing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nakamura, Robert T., and Thomas W. Church. Taming Regulation: Superfund and the Challenge of Regulatory Reform. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2003. Discusses administrative reform in the Superfund program and deals primarily with the aftermath of the scandal involving Rita Lavelle.

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