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Operation Save EPA: Why — and how — EPA staffers leaked documents during the Reagan administrati

Anne McGill Burford, director of the Environmental Protection Agency, testifies on Capitol Hill on March 3, 1983. (John Duricka/AP)
Anne McGill Burford, director of the Environmental Protection Agency, testifies on Capitol Hill on March 3, 1983. (John Duricka/AP)

Former President Ronald Reagan’s first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Anne Gorsuch, believed that the agency could carry out its duties with a much smaller budget and in a way that interfered less with industry.

But many on her staff thought her approach undermined the mission of the agency: to protect the environment and public health. So they worked with other Washington insiders to leak documents and stir up controversy.

The second episode of “Captured” looks at how critics both in and outside of the agency plotted to turn up the political heat on Gorsuch and the Reagan administration — and how the serious business of environmental regulation even ended up in the funny pages.

Full episode transcript

Scott Tong: If you know Washington, D.C., you may have stumbled across this playground: Turtle Park. It’s been around forever in this nice, leafy neighborhood by American University. And as playgrounds go, I give it an eight, maybe maybe a nine. Mini-slide, swings, monkey bars, playhouse with a mailbox. It’s a big upgrade from 1981, when an unassuming looking mom would come with her 4-year-old boy.

Caroline Isber: The playground had sand and there were concrete turtles.

Tong: Hence the name Turtle Park.

Isber: And he was jumping off the turtles and building sand castles and running around and meeting other children. 

Tong: That’s Caroline Isber. She’s a retired environmental policy expert. Back then, she says Turtle Park was a good spot for playdates — and a good rendez-vous point to get inside information.

Tong: And so sometimes who would come to visit you? In some cases, was it people from the EPA, which is pretty far from here?

Isber: Well, they were happy to come. They wanted to get together and I’d say, ‘Meet me in the playground.’

Tong: ‘Meet me in the playground’ — to plot. To fight. To resist. See, Caroline worked environment issues in the Carter White House. And in the early ‘80s, she helps to start this insurgent group. It’s called Save EPA. And Save EPA is meant to stop efforts by the Reagan administration to shrink the agency, or, in her view, to destroy it.

Isber: We thought that the environment was very much under attack. And so the question was, how to defend it? And so we evolved a strategy.

Tong: A strategy that requires Turtle Park as a handoff site. You know, one of those prearranged locations where brown packages manila envelopes with secret information gets passed. And as you can imagine, this town is full of these spots: There’s a footbridge in the Virginia suburbs where an American double agent dropped classified papers and disks for the Soviets. There’s a basement garage near Georgetown where Deep Throat met Woodward and Bernstein during Watergate. Now Turtle Park is not exactly a place where democracy rises and falls with the teeter totters. But to Caroline Isber, the stakes are really high. The issue is air pollution. It’s poison in the water. It’s toxic chemicals seeping into the soil. And whether the Environmental Protection Agency is up to the task.

Isber: I was getting the people who were willing to come in and they always brought me these documents and we would go over the documents and then I would know what I had.  

Tong: And what she has is papers suggesting the EPA may get its budget whacked. But here’s the thing: The EPA is still a new agency. It’s just a decade old. And it has a growing mandate to enforce all these new environment laws that Congress has just passed. Most recently, there’s one called Superfund — as we’ve been telling you about. It puts historical polluters on the hook to clean up hazardous waste they have dumped. But now the agency wants less money for all this work?

Isber: So you could analyze what the Office of Air had proposed getting. What the Office of Enforcement, Toxics, Water, Superfund — and how much they’d been cut.

Tong: It smells like regulatory capture; you know, a takeover of a government agency by a powerful ideology of small government or by a powerful industry — or both.

Isber: There will always be a repeat of administrations who do not like the regulations that the Environmental Protection Agency requires and are under pressure from businesses like the oil companies that will do the same thing and try to get rid of these nuisance toxic regulations or lead in gasoline. And that’s exactly what happened.

Tong: So Caroline and her little team at Save EPA jump into action to try to stop this. First of all, by leaking this all to the media.

(Soundbite from archival news: Gutting the Environmental Protection Agency. That is what senators on both sides of the aisle and environmentalists fear if leaked copies of the EPA’s 1983 budget requests are correct.)

Tong: Does this budding insurrection have a chance? Are they on the right side of history? Can they sink the big bosses who may be trying to sink the EPA? I’m Scott Tong. And from WBUR Podcasts and Here & Now, this is Captured: A brazen attempt to take over the EPA, and the nerds and pencil pushers who pushed back. Episode 2: Operation Save EPA. As we speak — I guess as I speak in 2022 — there’s this enduring debate over — and here comes a big, $5 phrase — the ‘administrative state.’ You know, government agencies and how much power they ought to have. After all, the people there are unelected bureaucrats. And to some they can be out of control.

(Soundbite from archival news: A significant decision on how the EPA’s allowed to enforce restrictions to protect the environment. And the question we’re looking at tonight: Can the EPA issue rules capable of reshaping the nation’s electricity grids?) 

Tong: Just this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court put limits on the Environmental Protection Agency. No, it ruled, the EPA cannot force power plants to cut CO2 emissions in a certain way.

And the fact is, conservatives have long wanted to rein in the EPA.

Gray: I mean, EPA has gotten involved and proposed a lot of controversial things. Maybe more than its share compared to other agencies.

Tong: Boyden Gray is a conservative stalwart in this town. He’s speaking from his law office at 17th and H. That’s just one block from Lafayette Square. Two from the White House. Boyden Gray has lobbied for petrochemical companies and power plants. He’s on the board of the conservative Federalist Society, which has put several justices on the Supreme Court. And — here’s a mouthful: his name is on the ‘C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University.’ Now, back in the Reagan administration, Gray heads up what’s called ‘regulatory review.’

Gray: The idea was not to get rid of all regulations. It was to see whether they could be pruned, made better, be a more efficient, more cost-effective, more cost-beneficial. So that’s what, that’s what it was for. EPA was, of course, a major part of the review. 

Tong: This is the small government dream of the Reagan footsoldier we met in Episode 1: Anne Gorsuch. Remember? the Republican state lawmaker? The self-proclaimed member of the ‘Colorado Crazies’ cabal? She comes to Washington in 1981 to do this regulatory pruning as head of Reagan’s EPA.

(Soundbite of Gorsuch: This will not be business as usual.)

Tong: Pretty quickly, this political appointee makes enemies of her underlings, who nickname her the Ice Queen. As they see it, Anne bullies the staff, plans to fire them — and she cozies up to the oil and gas lobby. Fairly or not, Anne becomes the bogey-woman to an emerging resistance. And one hub of this resistance is Save EPA. Okay, our tour of D.C. now takes us to a small, cramped townhouse. That’s HQ for this shoestring outfit Save EPA. It’s on New Hampshire Ave., just off Dupont Circle. And if you know the town, this is a central gathering spot for lobbyists, policy wonks, government workers, for reporters.  With their inside Washington contacts, Save EPA becomes a magnet for, well, all of the above. And their effort starts with a tip at dawn from inside the White House: a guy in the White House budget office calls Bill Drayton. Now, Bill Drayton is a former top EPA official, and he’s with Save EPA.

Bill Drayton: He invited me to come to breakfast at a ridiculously early hour, somewhere out in suburban Maryland, both of which are foreign territory to me. 

Tong: Now, Bill Drayton is a driven guy: Harvard, Yale Law, McKinsey consulting and then assistant administrator of the EPA. He’s connected, and he’s stubborn. Bill says the source leaks to him counting on him to do something.

Drayton: And this guy sat me down and said, ‘Something is going on that is attacking the central nervous system of our government.’ In his mind, that’s the budget.

Tong: Budget cuts. Brilliant, really. It’s a backdoor way to undermine an agency that only nerds recognize. Drayton’s source — we’ll call him Geek Throat —  says the plan is not to trim EPA, but to slash it.

Drayton: Very, very, very few people were gonna be left in their jobs.

Tong: Drayton is gobsmacked. And he realizes the Reaganites’ strategy: They don’t need the slowpokes in Congress to repeal any laws against polluters. That takes forever. They just need to make the bureaucrats who enforce them disappear.

Drayton: Lobotomy is not too strong a word for what they were planning. 

Tong: More, after the break.

Tong: Right around now, some of you are surely thinking, ‘Washington partisanship? Yeah, there’s news.’ Well, in 1981 it was news. In the decade prior, all kinds of bills passed, on  workplace safety, political fundraising, consumer product safety, endangered species, social security payments, safe drinking water, nuclear power plant safety. You get the picture? There’s a lot going on. So the idea of whacking away — lobotomizing — a young, growing agency; this blows Bill Drayton away. So his group Save EPA, in their little townhouse, starts [coughing] acquiring budget papers from inside the agency. And that is what Caroline Isber at Turtle Park is doing. And this group has to confirm these documents are legit. They have to bring in the wonks to translate them into regular English, and then they have to explain it all, to journalists like Robert Hager, NBC News. October 15, 1981.

(Soundbite from archival news: Administrator Gorsuch is under fire for a draft budget leaked from her agency. It proposes that by next fall, the agency’s money be cut 43%. Manpower would be cut 40%. Research into the dangers of pollution would be cut 63%. Lawsuits against alleged industrial polluters would be cut 67%. The chairman of the Senate Committee on the Environment, Republican Robert Stafford, said if the figures were accurate, Congress might as well repeal all the laws against pollution.)

Tong: This type of coverage is playing right into Save EPA’s plot to stir up scandal, keep it on NBC News. ‘Keep drawing blood,’ as Bill puts it. Now Bill Drayton is employee number one at Save EPA. Caroline Isber, from Turtle Park, she’s number two. And then they hire a young lawyer named Terry Dunmire as employee number three. But really, that might overstate the organization’s organization. Here’s Terry.

Terry Dunmire: This was totally ad hoc. This wasn’t something that had been blessed by a foundation with an infrastructure, anything. This was totally organic. These internal documents were literally dropped on desks or thrown over the transom during the course of that period of time. And so our job was to take that information and turn it into something that people could actually comprehend and that would be useful.

Tong: Sometimes this work takes a bit of spycraft. Nervous civil servants fear being fired — by the Ice Queen — for leaking.

Dunmire: You know, you develop these underground techniques, right? The apartment building behind my house, the front desk, there was one of the primary drop spots. 

Tong: And there was an agency employee living in that building?

Dunmire: Uh huh. 

Tong: OK.

Dunmire: Yep. And, and that person had a circle of people that knew to feed that person who, you know, could, I guess, take the bus to the Metro home and leave them at their front desk. And, you know, you get a call and go around the corner and pick it up and keep going.

Tong: And lo and behold, one day Save EPA gets a crucial budget document. It goes by the glorious inside the beltway term of ‘passback.’ The idea is each agency tells the White House how much money it wants for the next fiscal year and then the White House budget office responds with how much money it thinks the agency should get: passes it back. And then, this passback gets leaked to Save EPA. And sure enough, the White House Budget Office wants to slash the EPA’s funding. Caroline Isber at Save EPA remembers getting a call early one morning.

Isber: The phone rings and the fellow says, ‘This is so-and-so. I produce the show. I’m looking for the passback. Do you have it now?’ Somebody must’ve told them to call me; I don’t know who. I mean, I didn’t ask. I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ They said, ‘We have Anne Gorsuch on this morning. Can you fax me? Can you fax it to me?’

Tong: The era of fax.

Isber: The era of fax, which was pretty new. It was sort of, it wasn’t very easy to do. And so I faxed it and then they spent an hour going over it with me because of course you’re right. They didn’t know what it meant. So then Anne Gorsuch comes on. And they interview her and they ask her some key questions. And then to her horror, they put the passback documents up and say, but you said this, and this says that. And she really visibly, unfortunately, she blanched. She was shocked. 

Tong: And so the discrepancy was something like Anne Gorsuch says, ‘Oh, well, the budget is going to be this much money. And I’m very happy with it.’ And then the reporter says ‘No, wait a second. We have the latest document that says, actually it’s a lot less money.’  Is that, is that what it was?

Isber: Exactly what it was and they had the details so she could see, she could see up there, the numbers, she couldn’t deny it. And she didn’t know what to do. 

Tong: Do you remember how you felt? That’s a big victory for you.

Isber: I hate to say it, but I was thrilled. 

Tong: Bam. Blood drawn. And Anne Gorsuch is in the hot seat. Here’s a confrontation in the Senate that was aired on NBC.

(Soundbite from archival news:

Anchor: But Mrs. Gorsuch wouldn’t confirm the documents’ authenticity. 

Gorsuch: I don’t know what document this committee has in its possession, nor what its source is.

Anchor: Bringing this from Senator Hart of Colorado. 

Hart: There are all kinds of copies of this document, which are your 83 budget requests all over this committee table here. And, um, I don’t think they came from the tooth fairy, you know.)

Tong: Now publicly, Anne is toeing the Reagan party line. You know: Save taxpayer money, let the states regulate, not Washington. Do more with less. This is what Anne came to do: Shrink the government and take less money from taxpayers, who are suffering, by the way, from awful inflation.

Gorsuch: I look towards doing everything we are charged with Congress to do and doing a better job of it. Can we do it with fewer federal resources? Definitely.

Tong: But behind the scenes, there’s tension in the Reagan administration. Anne is privately battling her bosses. Yes, she does want to trim the budget, but not the drastic cuts the White House wants. Her chief rival is the head of the White House budget office, a.k.a., the Office of Management and Budget: David Stockman.

(Soundbite of Stockman: We will have to reduce expenditures and program levels in many areas.)

Tong: Now Stockman, just a year before this, was a congressman from Michigan. And he was one of the only members to oppose the creation of Superfund. He said the federal government should not take on more responsibility.

(Soundbite of Gorsuch: David’s viewpoint was far more pure from a philosophical idealistic standpoint. He was very strongly opposed to the original Superfund.)

Tong: So Anne at the EPA writes David at the White House budget office a spitting letter. She writes the EPA budget cuts smack of ‘a bottom line in search of a reason.’  And this letter — this missive — finds its way to The New York Times. That’s where Phil Shabecoff is breaking a load of stories on Anne.

Shabecoff: She was not anti-environmental at all. She just wanted to come at it from a conservative perspective, trying to find ways to protect the environment without excessive regulation on industry. She was big on urging companies to do voluntary compliance with the environmental laws — you know, which is like telling the foxes to make sure they take good, careful care of the henhouses. But that was her approach and I think she was somewhat sincere about it. 

Tong: Thing is, all around the agency are political appointees who are veterans of companies the agency is supposed to regulate. And in the EPA building these political appointees — they have a reputation as far as the career civil servants are concerned. Including Deb Dalton. She’s a lowly scientist working on toxic waste issues.

Dalton: You know, you see a flag lapel pin come into the elevator and you go, oh, let’s just mess with these people. 

Tong: Oh, the lapel pins. See, these Reagan appointees are easy to spot. They have this unofficial uniform: They all tend to wear this pin with an American flag. And Deb and her colleagues want them out of their way. So when these ‘lapel pin guys’ step in the elevator, Deb and her colleagues change the subject. They even make up fake environmental cases … to throw them off the scent. And here’s why staffers like Deb are striking back: Their bosses have put some EPA workers on a hit list of people to eliminate. They’re slashing the budget and they keep reorganizing the staff. Which means more bureaucracy and less time for the staff to do their jobs to investigate hazardous waste sites.

Dalton: It was mostly delaying tactics, you know, keep asking questions, keep asking for, you know, did you look at this? Did you look at that? Are you sure that that company sent something poisonous? 

Tong: This stalling kinda works, ‘cause environmental enforcement plummets.

(Soundbite from archival news: Information obtained by a Congressional staff aid shows the Environmental Protection Agency referring fewer than 50 charges of environmental law violations in the first nine months after President Reagan took office. That compares to 230 cases last year.)

Tong: You know how they say, ‘know your audience’? Well, Save EPA’s audience here is not just Dan Rather at CBS News, or the American people. It’s Congress, which can investigate, subpoena, showboat. And one very influential guy on Capitol Hill is a lawyer named Dick Frandsen. He’s an investigator at the House Energy and Commerce Committee. And Dick Frandsen gets word — from EPA staff, or perhaps the Save EPA underground, somewhere — that the government, which is supposed to charge companies for polluting, is actually helping them negotiate down the price that companies pay. Take The FIRST Superfund site. It’s in Santa Fe Springs, California. One political appointee at the EPA negotiates with a paint company called Inmont, which is on the hook for cleanup. Dick Frandsen learns that this political appointee…

Dick Frandsen:  … had taken it upon himself without notifying the negotiating team from the enforcement office to call Inmont attorney, and give him the agency’s bottom line for settlement.

Tong: If you know anything about negotiating, you’re not supposed to give away your bottom line. But this guy — he gave the company this inside information so the company could get the best deal. This is the ‘kinder, gentler’ Reagan EPA. And when this gets out, to Congress and to the media, it’s a big win for the resistance. And then, this serious business of poison in the water — it gets into the funny pages: as in Doonesbury, the acerbic, counter-culture, Pulitzer-Prize winning comic strip read by millions of Americans in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Dalton: Doonesbury was a really big thing in the ‘80s.

Tong: That’s Deb Dalton again. And in January 1982, Doonesbury features a new character — a fictitious EPA lawyer named Ted Simpson. His job is to go after polluting companies.

Dalton: And it was so exciting because EPA was a pretty obscure agency really, in the scheme of things, and to have an EPA employee be like the main character in a Doonesbury cartoon expressing our frustration, particularly the enforcement group’s frustration with not being able to do our job. And so Ted Simpson was our hero.

Tong: Under Anne Gorsuch and the Reagan administration, this Ted Simpson gets neutered. The comic shows him, balding, bags under his eyes. His feet dangle over the ledge, far above the traffic of D.C.

Dalton: And so he went out on a window ledge and into one of these towers and threatened to jump off unless he was allowed to do his job. And he just sat there on the ledge for two weeks.

Tong:  And he was the main character in the strip?

Dalton: Right. And, and so, you know, we were going, ‘Yeah, Ted go! Yay, Ted!’

Tong: Eventually Ted Simpson is talked off the ledge by Anne Gorsuch, the big boss at the EPA. She says, okay I’ll change things. At which point he comes back into the office and Anne goes ‘I lied. You’re fired.’

Dalton: We had this Ted Simpson fan club and we made a shirt that said we were a Ted Simpson fan club.

Tong: They even wear those Ted Simpson shirts around the office. These civil servants, they’re taking this fight to their bosses. Thing is, these little people are about to get a new boss in the Superfund program: a 35-year-old Reagan devotee who comes in and breaks more stuff. Break more norms, and more laws.

Rita Lavelle: They hated me. 

Tong: Her name is Rita Lavelle. Next time, on Captured.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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