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Poison in the water: When the Reagan administration’s EPA met resistance from its own staff

In this Aug. 5, 1978 file photo, Mark Zanatian, one of the children endangered by the Love Canal Chemicals under 99th Street, waves a banner in protest during a neighborhood protest meeting in Niagara Falls, N.Y. New York's top court ruled Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011 that  the state can require polluted Superfund sites to be returned to pre-industrial conditions, a win for environmentalists. The Court of Appeals says the state Department of Environmental Conservation can require polluters to restore sites to a level the judges call "complete cleanup." (AP)
In this Aug. 5, 1978 file photo, Mark Zanatian, one of the children endangered by the Love Canal Chemicals under 99th Street, waves a banner in protest during a neighborhood protest meeting in Niagara Falls, N.Y. New York's top court ruled Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011 that the state can require polluted Superfund sites to be returned to pre-industrial conditions, a win for environmentalists. The Court of Appeals says the state Department of Environmental Conservation can require polluters to restore sites to a level the judges call "complete cleanup." (AP)

The 1970s represented an environmental reckoning for many Americans. At the start of the decade, former President Richard Nixon created the brand-new Environmental Protection Agency.

Congress passed sweeping laws about protecting air and water. And more Americans grew concerned about major health risks from toxic waste in their communities.

But not everyone believed that the federal government should play such a large role in preventing pollution or cleaning it up.

In 1981, former President Ronald Reagan was elected on a platform to rein in government spending and regulation. He appointed a conservative lawmaker from Colorado named Anne Gorsuch to lead the EPA. As soon as she arrived at the agency, Gorsuch began to clash with many of its scientists and lawyers over what the role of the EPA should be.

The first episode of Captured tells the story of what happened when Gorsuch came to the agency and what forces seeded concerns about regulatory capture — when a government agency becomes beholden to an ideology or certain corporate interests — among the EPA staff.

Full episode transcript:

Scott Tong: Spring 1978. Southern California. Rain, and then floods, clobber a working-class town. The town is Glen Avon, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of archival news: Since the heavy damage and destruction in California from almost endless rains, mudslides and floods, the president declared the state of disaster area tonight.)

Tong: “Disaster,” because this happens once a century. And these floodwaters carry this strange gray foam stuff. It’s kind of stiff.

Penny Newman: Kids who’d been going to school, they’d been playing in these puddles and, you know, making beards out of the foam that they came across and becoming toxic snowmen.

Tong: Penny Newman is the mom of two young boys at the time. She’s a first-grade teacher’s aide.

Newman: We saw the kids who were playing in the puddles, that their shoes started disintegrating. Their Levi’s would be falling apart. My youngest son during this time at the elementary school, he’s the one who would come home from school and talk about the tetherball poles standing on top of each other. He was having double vision. 

Tong: It turns out, there’s a chemical dump site in the hills above Glen Avon, and it’s filled with oils and sludge. See, for decades, hundreds of companies making engines, aircrafts, lightbulbs, dumped their industrial waste there. We’re talking General Electric, McDonnell Douglas, Sunkist. This site is known as the “Stringfellow Acid Pits.” It was once an old rock quarry that became a toxic pond. And America is full of these sites. They hearken back to our industrial might. Our manufacturing binge of the 20th century. And now to our industrial hangover. So as it pours, back in 1978, this toxic lake starts to rise. It’s about to bust the dam holding it back. So to ease the pressure, local officials release poisonous liquids — enough liquids to fill a pool at the Olympics. And these toxic floodwaters flow down to Glen Avon. Thing is, the officials — they don’t tell anyone. But you know how it goes: Eventually, word leaks out — as it were — to the school superintendent.

Newman: So he decided, well, we needed to set up some kind of an evacuation plan for that school. So they told us teachers in a private meeting that if you hear two bells, take the kids down to the buses to be taken out of the area. If you hear three bells, it will be too late. The dam will have broken, put the kids on top of the desk and hope for the best.

Tong: Hope for the best? It will be too late?

Newman: That’s when we started asking questions. A bunch of us housewives got together and, you know, we started doing research and found the list of chemicals that had been dumped there. We didn’t know all of them. But we knew what [dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane] was, we knew lead. And we knew it shouldn’t be flowing through our community, or we shouldn’t be exposed to it.

Tong: Here’s Penny Newman in an oral history interview.

(Soundbite of Newman in interview: And it wasn’t until later that we started seeing the more long term health issues. And I think it was at that point it hit us that, ‘oh my gosh, this is not going to go away when the exposure stops.’ This has already happened. It’s already started a chain reaction within our bodies, and damage that may not disappear.)

Tong: A decade later, one study suggests that living near Stringfellow has a ‘significant relationship to birth defects.’ Another study finds that residents report high rates of asthma and chest pain in Glen Avon, much higher than the city next door. We should note that direct medical cause and effect is really hard to prove, but still — imagine for a second this is your child, with her whole life ahead of her, exposed to a poison, a carcinogen. Here’s what we know about toxic chemicals: You know, arsenic,  benzene, lead, DDT — and those are the pronounceable ones. They show up in pesticides on our fruit, in kitchen drain cleaner, in furniture polish, nail polish remover. And many are linked definitively to cancers and birth defects. So, whose job is it to protect us from all this? Or at the very least … not intentionally release the stuff into our neighborhoods and our playgrounds? Yeah, the government. Well, Penny Newman thinks so.

Newman: I really believed that people in authority did the right thing and that if something were going on, they’d let us know.

Tong: You would think. Now, across the country in 1970s Washington, D.C., there’s this brand new agency called the Environmental Protection Agency. And one of its clear mandates is to keep toxic waste away from humans. Well, we’re gonna dig into a story about how the federal government at the highest levels struggled to protect you and me. We’re gonna learn about powerful businesses. Whistleblowers. Investigators in Congress. Handwritten notes. And executive privilege. That may sound familiar. And eventually, about a top official sent to prison. And we’re gonna ask — how did this happen? What are the forces, and who are the people, that can undermine our institutions? And who protects the institutions? 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 fought back. Episode 1: Poison in the water. Around the time toxins are turning up in the water, and in the ground in California, the EPA is getting hammered by this powerful, new ideology sweeping America.

(Soundbite of Reagan: I’ve always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.)

Tong: Cutting red tape. Getting rid of dead weight. That’s part of our story. But another part is the little people — the bureaucrats, scientists, geeks — who rise up against their bosses upstairs.

Deb Dalton: An intellectual version of the French resistance.

Terry Dunmite: Getting documents from EPA in the middle of the night was a really, really daring push of the envelope.

Bill Drayton: The press was absolutely critical.

Deb Dalton: We knew the tunnels of government, and we knew how to use them. We were pretty passionate about what we did.

Tong: This resistance from the inside — this “deep state” if you will — goes back four decades. But the same dynamic exists today. See, I spent several years reporting on industry and the environment and I first heard about this story during the Trump administration. You may remember his first EPA head, Scott Pruitt? Well, he had the agency block pollution rules or slow-walk them. Sideline officials who questioned their bosses. And had a soundproof phone booth built for him, for a mere $43,000 — as in taxpayer dollars. When I asked folks in and around the EPA then, they said, ‘We’ve seen this movie. It’s familiar.’ And that is when they dropped this word: capture. It’s thrown around a lot in D.C. Regulatory capture is when an arm of the government gets taken over, sometimes by an industry. Think Big Tobacco getting permission to market to kids, or casinos making it easier to gamble online or property developers getting to build on the waterfront. And sometimes, this capture comes from a political view that happens to be in fashion. You know, ‘get the government out of my life.’ But back in the 1970s, that wasn’t the prevailing view. Congress and the American people wanted Washington to do more.

(Soundbite of documentary: Deadly chemicals seeping out of a waste dump called Love Canal are blamed for health problems…)

Tong: Now if you, like me, are of a certain vintage, you recall the nightmare of toxic waste dumps. The most notorious one was in a place you’d least expect it: Niagara Falls.

(Soundbite of documentary: The state of New York is now trying to drain off any liquid which seeps out of the canal. But workers made a chilling discovery. They found traces of the dreaded substance dioxin, which is a waste product from the manufacturer of certain herbicides and disinfectants. It is regarded by experts as one of the most lethal substances ever created by man.)

Tong: The government responded, with the support of almost all Americans. See, the 1960s and ‘70s were our environmental awakening. Americans learned about the costs —the long-term costs — of decades of industrial growth. We learned about poisonous pesticides from Rachel Carson’s famous book, ‘Silent Spring.’ We celebrated the first Earth Day.

(Soundbite of news footage:If this day of teach-ins, mock funerals, rallies, marches, speeches and songs does not convince enough of us that the threat to our life on Earth is clear and present, we may have cast a vote for death.) 

Tong: And we witnessed the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency, delivered by Richard Nixon, Republican president.

(Soundbite of Nixon: Each of us all across this great land has a stake in maintaining and improving environmental quality, clean air and clean water. These are part of the birthright of every American.)

Tong: And then, presidents from both parties — Nixon, and then Ford and then Carter — sign key environmental laws that are still in effect today, on clean air, safe drinking water, endangered species, hazardous materials, insecticides. And in 1980, Jimmy Carter signs a law to clean up old toxic waste dumps like Love Canal, and those Stringfellow Acid Pits in Southern California. Now, this law goes by the acronym CERCLA, though most people call it Superfund. And the idea is historic polluters pay for cleanup. Now when the law passes, industry is pissed. Think about it: This dumping of waste back in, say, the 1940s and ‘50s was not illegal when they did it. And now they’re stuck with the bill decades later? Rita Lavelle works in communications for the defense company Aerojet General when Superfund passes.

Lavelle: I really did not like the concept of joint and several liability and penalizing corporations that were still in business for the sins of everybody in the past.

Tong: Okay, geek alert: Joint and several liability means one guilty party can be held responsible for the industrial sins of others.

Lavelle: And then also, I really didn’t like the concept that it was sinful for what they did, because a lot of it was accepted practices. Nobody knew the consequences of anything. It’s hard to believe this picture of nefarious fellow employees that, you know, day and night, going out and dumping toxic waste in the river. I mean, that just is not the way it occurred.

Tong: But then, Rita Lavelle and her corporate friends get a savior. More, after a break.

Tong: Just a month after Superfund passes in December 1980, a new man moves into the White House with plans to tame the regulators: Ronald Reagan.

(Soundbite of Reagan: In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. [Applause])

Tong: And at the time, the economy — well, it sucks. Inflation’s 14%. And even though his predecessor Jimmy Carter also questions government rules and their cost, Reagan goes all in.

(Soundbite of Reagan: Now we have no intention of dismantling the regulatory agencies, especially those necessary to protect the environment and assure the public health and safety. However, we must come to grips with inefficient and burdensome regulations that eliminate those we can and reform the others.)

Tong: So to free up American enterprise, as he sees it, Reagan taps a feisty 38-year-old, pro-business lawmaker from Colorado to run the EPA. Her name is Anne Gorsuch.

(Soundbite of Gorsuch: Now I never grabbed a wire hanger to threaten a reporter, but the temptation was there.)

Tong: Anne Gorsuch is part of a group of conservative state representatives in the Mountain West who are allied with the Coors Beer family and its money. Here’s the MacNeil/Lehrer Report:

(Soundbite: The Rocky Mountain News once said in an editorial that she could kick a bear to death with her bare feet. While serving two terms in the Colorado state legislature, she aligned with a group of conservative lawmakers that oppose such things as toxic waste legislation and pollution control and were known as the Crazies.)

Tong: They call themselves the ‘The Crazies.’ Again, this particular ‘Crazy’ is named Anne Gorsuch. If that name rings a bell … yeah, she’s the mom of Neil Gorsuch, now on the Supreme Court. Back in 1981, Neil is a teenager — years before he rules against what he calls the “Goliath” of government regulations. In 2022, he joined a decision to undo EPA climate rules.

(Soundbite of news footage: The Supreme Court capped off a week of landmark decisions yesterday by limiting the EPA’s power to curb carbon dioxide emissions. By a 6-3 vote the court ruled the clean air act, first established in 1963, does not give the EPA the authority to regulate emissions from power plants that contribute to global warming.)

Tong: It sounds an awful lot like Neil Gorsuch’s mom’s approach in the 1980s: To shrink the federal government.

(Soundbite of Gorsuch: Remember regulatory reform, revitalized federalism, and producing greater environmental results and doing it with fewer taxpayers dollars all were within the realm of the possible at EPA.)

Tong: Now, Anne Gorsuch turns heads when she lands in D.C., a town we’ll call “‘ashion backward.’ I can say that since I live here and meet the description. Whereas Anne Gorsuch — she’s glamorous.

(Soundbite of Gorsuch: The Washington Post wrote me up in its style section saying, I look like a ‘young Suzanne Pleshette.’ It was the only nice thing that they ever printed about me.)

Tong: Suzanne Pleshette — Hollywood star, dark eyes, sultry voice. Look her up. Anne gets all these comments on her looks.

(Soundbite of Gorsuch: Now, how that is any way related to the public’s right to know about the environment will remain to me at least forever a mystery.)

Tong: Well, okay then. Down to business. One of Anne’s jobs is to enforce the brand new Superfund law on toxic waste dumps.

(Soundbite of Gorsuch: I accepted that A. the EPA was there, B. that Superfund was there, C. that there was an enormous delegation of responsibilities and said, ‘Okay, now let’s get on with it.’)

Tong: ‘Getting on’ with it takes a newly formed team of experts: environmental lawyers and scientists. One of them is Deb Dalton, a young biologist who comes to the EPA straight out of graduate school to, well, save the planet.

Deb Dalton: There are all these new hires. And so there was just a whole contingent of people my age and most of them weren’t married. And so we could work all we want and we could socialize afterwards and, you know, really throw ourselves into it.

Tong: That’s pretty young, compared to the other bureaucrats in town as it were, right?

Dalton: Oh yeah. Very young agency. Very different in the way that it regarded the job. You know, you worked for [Health & Human Services] or [Health, Education, and Welfare] it was known then, and, you know, they were all sort of middle-aged bureaucrats that, you know, all had wives and kids at home and, you know, come in, did the job. I’m not sure it was the same kind of energy level.

Scott: You were the new kids, then you, the new, exciting kids at the new school.

Dalton: Right. Taking over the new school. 

Tong: Deb and her young team make a list of the most toxic sites in the country. And near the top, wouldn’t you know it, is the Stringfellow Acid Pits in Southern California. Deb meets me at the site of the old EPA building where her team got stuck working down in the basement.

Dalton: So when I started, they hadn’t really found enough desks for everybody and they really weren’t sure whether all of us were going to fit in this basement room in a kind of big open, probably was never designed to be offices because the air quality was terrible because of the garage underneath us. So it was kind of fun.

Tong: Yep, environmental protectors breathing bad air. Not to mention a putrid Potomac River a couple blocks away. See, the EPA is a relatively new government agency and it’s renting work space in this low end shopping mall.

Dalton: It had places like, you know, Dunkin’ Donuts and a couple of delis and a Chinese restaurant and the Safeway was all in the middle.

Tong: Still, this is a spritely hazardous waste team Deb is on. They’re young. They form EPA softball teams to play on the National Mall after work. It’s a DC thing. There’s a camaraderie. There’s a shared environmental mission. So, can you see the collision coming? On one hand, there’s this unstoppable force of young, civil servants. And on the other,  this immovable object of the big boss, Anne Gorsuch.

Dalton: She was kind of a cold fish. Not warm, not inclusive of staff, pretty, um, pretty disregarding of staff, really disrespecting of staff. She didn’t really want to know. 

Tong: She gave that off immediately? Like as soon as you, you pretty quickly you could tell.

Dalton: Yeah. Because past administrators and administrators after her would occasionally do little morale trips where they’d walk around and drop into offices and, you know, shake hands and do the thing. Right? 

Tong: Anne Gorsuch knows she has a reputation.

(Soundbite of Gorsuch: I was usually identified in news reports as the ice queen, the dragon lady or the Joan Crawford of the Reagan administration.)

Tong: Joan Crawford, Hollywood diva. Google her, too. The ice queen moniker is what sticks with her staff. And here’s what they’re talking about: In the lobby of the EPA building at the time, there’s this big fish tank.

(Soundbite of Dalton: It was great! It was great. And we would get school groups that would come in and there was like a little, you know, thing for school growth groups and the fish were great. But they soon went away.) 

Tong: They went away because Anne Gorsuch hated the tank. Here’s how she described first that fish tank in her book: “I had walked into the lobby of the West Tower, the official entrance to the EPA, and had taken a good look at the gigantic fish tank … the water was grayish, cloudy and murky, and if there were any fish still alive in it, they had wisely donned a protective invisibility…’ So Anne Gorsuch’s first official act? Drain the tank. She writes, ‘Oh, my God. If these people are in charge of keeping my air and water clean, we’re all in trouble.’ Now, to be clear, this switching in and out of new bosses is how elections work. A new president is voted in and appoints people to head departments and agencies. That’s the system. The issue is, when a new boss is tone deaf to the culture in the building.

Kurent: I mean, this was not just another bureaucratic organization. These were people who were dedicated, motivated. All the time I worked there — for the years I was there, I’d never seen anything like it. I couldn’t imagine. You come in on the weekends and half the office would be in the office working on weekends, not getting paid. They’re there working.

Tong: That’s Ed Kurent, also a Superfund enforcer. He’s a lawyer who’s just left the Navy. And at the ripe old age of 33, he is the graybeard in this punchy young office. As he tells it, when Anne Gorsuch first goes to the EPA, he walks up to her at a work party.

Kurent: I said, ‘Well, I’m a lawyer working in hazardous waste enforcement.’ And she looked me in the eye and she took a step and a half back, I mean, a visual step back, and looked me in the eye and said, ‘We’re going to be eliminating your job.’

Tong: By the way, the EPA administrator does not have the authority to do that. But that’s small-government Reaganite speaking. And along the way making enemies with the people. And the fish. Meantime, Anne Gorsuch is making new friends on the outside — with corporate lobbyists. Yeah, those companies supposedly being regulated by the EPA. Here’s an anecdote from Brendan Doyle. He’s an environmental consultant at the time.

Doyle: I went to a luncheon where Anne Gorsuch was giving a speech to the D.C. government affairs committees for the American Petroleum Institute and the Independent Petroleum Producers. And she was really pretty amazing. She came into the room and she sat down and she, you know, shook hands with all the guys. And she was right up there on the dais and she sat down and she lit up a Marlboro, you know, and she said, ‘I’m from EPA and I’m here to help.’

Tong: And then her agency helps all kinds of companies. It lets Dow Chemical suggest edits to an EPA report on Dow Chemical. The company is found to be poisoning rivers in Michigan with dioxin. EPA’s in-house inspector finds that Gorsuch promises an oil refinery it won’t be punished for having too much lead in gas. As for the staff — it turns out EPA managers have a ‘hit list.’ An ‘enemies list’ of assumed, lefty troublemakers who don’t have the same affinity for private industry. Again, Deb Dalton.

Dalton: It was a hit list to kind of like drive them out of the agency, one way or another either out of frustration or by putting them in, you know, Nowheresville or in a program that was going nowhere.

Tong: Because these people were in the way

Dalton: They were in the way.

Tong: By now, Deb and her team are starting to wonder if this is what ‘capture’ looks like. Her bosses don’t seem to want them to do their jobs. As in, enforce the law.

Dalton: They would say ‘kinder and gentler’ was their philosophy of handling industry. You know, we need to educate them as to what they’re going to do. We don’t need to beat them up. We were kinder and gentler.

Tong: And suddenly this powerful new Superfund law, with teeth to go after polluters, seems not so powerful.

Dalton: We’re just sort of like, ‘What? We just got this new law. We can go do all these things!’ And I think we just didn’t believe it.

Tong: These EPA staffers — at first, they’re stunned. Then, they get angry. And that’s when this resistance starts to materialize. An effort to tell the world. Get the word out to Congress and the media. Translation: Time to start leaking.

Isber: That’s what caused this great, uh, surge of information coming out of the agency. She insulted them.

Dunmire: If people psychologically think they’re trying to really do the right thing, they can pull off stunts that are pretty amazing.

Gordon: There were journalists from. you know, television and wire services and newspapers and magazines, and they were all converging on this agency trying to find out what’s going on because more and more stories began to leak.

Dalton: And we’re going ‘Oh my God, these people are crazy.’ If Gorsuch could have dismantled the agency she would have.

Tong: As many EPA workers and their friends see it, an outside virus has invaded. Next time on Captured: The antibodies.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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