Superfund, Supermess

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Take two strong women, subpoenas, probes, shredders and stir well

Jolted by the horror of New York's Love Canal and other revelations of chemical poisons seeping into America's earth and water, Congress three years ago created a $1.6 billion "Superfund" for cleaning up hazardous wastes. Drawing on contributions from chemical and oil companies, with costs to be recouped from violators, the measure was hailed as an important beginning in coping with the worst public health threat of the 1980s. It gave the Environmental Protection Agency the money and authority to purge the toxic dumps environmentalists called "ticking time bombs."

Today the ticking may be louder than ever. Despite local officials' pleas for swift action, the agency took until two months ago to identify the 418 sites it regards as most dangerous. Of those, it has cleansed only five. Meanwhile, roiling criticism of the agency and its controversial administrator, Anne Gorsuch, attracted the attention of two congressional subcommittees, which began investigating charges that the EPA had made "sweetheart" deals with polluting companies and delayed cleanups for political reasons. When Gorsuch refused in December to turn over subpoenaed documents pertaining to 160 Superfund sites, she was cited for contempt of Congress—the first time in history for a Cabinet-level official.

The Superfund issue has exploded into a nasty struggle over power and poli cy that has shattered the once proud agency and deepened doubts in some quarters about the Reagan Administration's commitment to environmental protection. Last Monday, President Reagan tersely fired Rita Lavelle, the EPA official who oversaw hazardous waste programs, after she refused to resign at Gorsuch's request. Lavelle's ouster provided a glimpse into the bizarre infighting and bitter policy battles that have given the agency under Gorsuch the ambience of a Borgia palace on the Potomac. Appalled by allegations of perjury, conflict of interest and manipulation of federal funds, three more House subcommittees and a Senate committee joined in the EPA probe. "They're smelling blood," said one Democratic House staff member. "They're smelling all kinds of shenanigans."

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