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Government, Politics & Issues

Contempt vote, views stir memories of EPA's Gorsuch, Times Beach

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 22, 2012 - WASHINGTON – Memories of Times Beach stirred this week when a House panel approved a contempt of Congress resolution while, separately, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., expressed his contempt for the Environmental Protection Agency’s head as the “worst administrator” in the agency’s history.

Oddly enough, there may be a connection -– considering that the administrator who many regard as the EPA’s worst was also the first head of a federal agency to be cited for contempt of Congress.

Thirty years ago, in December 1982, the full House voted to hold EPA Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over “enforcement-sensitive” EPA files related to its troubled superfund waste cleanup program, which included dioxin-contaminated Times Beach.

Gorsuch resigned under fire a few months later – after the administration of President Ronald Reagan opted to turn over the disputed documents, over which it initially had claimed executive privilege.

On Wednesday, the House oversight committee voted along party lines to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for refusing to turn over key documents from the “fast and furious” gun-tracking operation. The administration of President Barack Obama claimed executive privilege on the documents, but the GOP-led House may vote on the contempt citation next week if a deal on the documents isn’t worked out before then.

On Thursday, Blunt told reporters that Obama’s executive privilege claim was “a mistake” and “makes me wonder if there really is something wrong here.” The senator said that he is “more concerned about 'fast and furious' now than I ever was.”

Then Blunt, discussing EPA regulations on toxic emissions at power plants, said: “I think Lisa Jackson is the worst administrator in the history of the EPA.”

Environmental organizations tend to give that dubious title to Gorsuch, who was not only cited for contempt of Congress but later was pressured to resign in the wake of congressional inquiries, the ongoing Times Beach debacle, and harsh criticisms that the EPA and its Superfund program were in a shambles. Many experts view the Superfund scandals during the Reagan administration as the low point in the EPA’s history.

While Jackson, a chemical engineer, has come under fire from several industries and many GOP lawmakers for proposing regulations that are overly stringent, she is generally praised by environmental organizations for trying to enforce federal environmental laws.

Gorsuch, Times Beach and EPA controversy

Gorsuch, a conservative Colorado attorney, was named by Reagan as the first female EPA administrator in 1981. Contending that the EPA was over-regulating business, Gorsuch cut the agency’s budget, reduced its staff, relaxed Clean Air rules, and slowed down the number of EPA cases filed against alleged polluters.

Her actions led to opposition from environmental groups and the Democratic-led Congress, where the Energy & Commerce and Public Works committees started investigating the management of the $1.6 billion Superfund toxic-waste cleanup program, a product of the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.

Reagan had issued an executive order in 1981 designating the EPA administrator in charge of enforcing the Superfund program. Gorsuch accepted that role, but complaints soon came to light, and the House committees examined allegations of misconduct by EPA officials and questions about how aggressively the agency and Justice Department were recovering clean-up costs from the polluters.

While the EPA provided thousands of requested documents, it withheld more than 60 files that were deemed to be enforcement-sensitive – that is, the exposure of which could ruin the EPA’s strategy of enforcing the Superfund law. The White House claimed executive privilege, the two committees voted to hold Gorsuch in contempt, and the full House voted 259-105 on Dec. 16, 1982 to affirm that contempt citation.

Under the law, the House vote sends the contempt citation to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia for presentation to a federal grand jury. If charged and found guilty of contempt of Congress – a criminal misdemeanor – an official could be sentenced to up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

However, the Reagan administration filed a civil suit asking a U.S. district judge to block the House from asking for a criminal prosecution. The argument was that Gorsuch was acting under Reagan’s proper and legal claim of executive privilege. In the meantime, the U.S. attorney declined to prosecute on the criminal charge.

All this was happening at a time of incredible turmoil at Times Beach, a small town near Eureka whose dirt roads had been sprayed with dioxin and PCB-laced oil in the 1970s. Times Beach dominated headlines in the St. Louis region in late 1982 and much of 1983.

The EPA had tested dioxin levels at Times Beach in mid-1982 and results from a Dec. 3 soil sample showed dioxin levels about 100 times higher than the level regarded as hazardous to people. Starting on Dec. 5, the Meramec River inundated Times Beach, and just before Christmas the EPA confirmed that it had found potentially dangerous levels of dioxin the town’s soil – causing panic in the town.

The Times Beach mess popped up in the ongoing congressional investigations, and the EPA announced in late February 1983 that it planned to buy out the town’s residents. (Times Beach was fully evacuated by 1985, and a cleanup ensued.)

Under fire from congressional investigators, Gorsuch submitted her resignation, which Reagan accepted in March 1983. In her resignation letter, Gorsuch said she was proud of her record at the EPA and she defended Reagan’s assertion of executive privilege on the Superfund documents, arguing that executive privilege “is essential to maintaining the constitutional balance of power.”

For his part, Reagan said Gorsuch had been “unjustly attacked” and added that she could “walk out of the EPA with your head held high.”

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