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Obituaries

Anne Burford, 62; Embattled EPA Chief for President Reagan

July 22, 2004|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Anne McGill Gorsuch Burford, a controversial head of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Reagan administration who resigned that post amid a storm of criticism and a battle with Congress, has died. She was 62.

Burford died of cancer Sunday at a hospital in Aurora, Colo., one of her sons, J.J. Gorsuch, told Associated Press.

A former Colorado state legislator and corporate lawyer, Burford was a self-described conservative Republican who was committed to Reagan's goals of reducing government spending and limiting regulations on business and industry. She, like Reagan, favored returning government regulations to the states.

Burford served on Reagan's transition team and actively sought the EPA post, reasoning that it was one of the toughest jobs in government. She was appointed head of the EPA in February 1981 and was the second-ranking woman in the Reagan administration after U.N. Secretary General Jeane J. Kirkpatrick.

Almost immediately, Burford became one of the most controversial members of the administration and a lightning rod for environmentalists. In her first year in office, she cut the agency's budget 22% and proposed other measures to roll back EPA policies. She slashed EPA enforcement actions against polluters and slowed payments for Superfund cleanups.

By her reasoning, she was making the cuts to protect the environment more efficiently by using a smaller staff, giving more responsibility to states and deploying what she viewed as more sensible regulations.

Environmentalists said she was wrecking the EPA in the name of government reform.

She took the blame for the moves, regardless whether they were her ideas.

"I was a small fish on the way to a big fry," she later complained, saying that she had no help from the White House in her battles.

Her major undoing was a fight with Congress over documents concerning the agency's use of the $1.6-billion Superfund, which was established to clean up toxic waste dumps across the nation, including the large Stringfellow Acid Pits near Riverside.

In December 1982, she refused to give Congress the EPA documents detailing the agency's use of the Superfund.

Her refusal to comply came on the orders of the president under his declaration of executive privilege.

The conflict between Burford and Congress, which provoked the House to cite her for contempt of Congress, escalated to where at least six House subcommittees and one Senate committee began investigating the agency amid charges of "sweetheart deals" with industrial polluters and political manipulation of the Superfund program.

Meanwhile, the agency itself was in turmoil.

In early 1983, Reagan fired Rita M. Lavelle as head of the EPA's toxic waste program after Lavelle refused Burford's request that she resign following allegations of mismanagement and conflict of interest involving dealings with some companies in the Stringfellow case. Lavelle was eventually convicted on charges of lying to Congress.

Other top EPA officials resigned or were ousted. Though Reagan told reporters that he was standing by his embattled EPA chief, on March 9, 1983, he accepted her resignation.

Her departure did nothing to stop a Justice Department probe, which was ordered by Reagan, of the EPA, but months later the department ruled that there was insufficient evidence to criminally prosecute Burford or several other former EPA officials.

Although Burford was furious at Reagan's aides, who she believed had orchestrated her resignation, she remained loyal to the president.

"I love that guy," she said, "and I'd be proud to serve him any place."

William Ruckelshaus, the first head of the EPA in the Nixon administration, was brought in to replace Burford and quickly restored the agency's shattered morale.

Two years after her EPA stint, Reagan tried to name her chairwoman of the National Advisory Commission on Oceans and Atmosphere. But she withdrew her name in the face of criticism that included a resolution in the Republican-controlled Senate that overwhelmingly called for the withdrawal of her nomination.

She spent much of the rest of her life in Colorado and specialized in child-advocacy law.

Anne McGill was born April 21, 1942, in Casper, Wyo., and graduated from the University of Colorado and the University of Colorado Law School.

She became a Fulbright scholar who taught English to high school students in India who were studying India's judicial system, a deputy district attorney in Denver and a corporate attorney.

She was elected to the Colorado Legislature in 1976 and served two terms before going to Washington.

Her first marriage to David Gorsuch ended in divorce. Her second husband, Bob Burford, was director of the Bureau of Land Management under Reagan. They divorced in 1992, a year before he died of cancer at age 70.

She is survived by her mother, six siblings, three children and several grandchildren.

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