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EPA chief charts austere course

Interior Secretary James G. Watt is not the only Reagan appointee under fire from environmentalists. In recent weeks, a barrage of criticism has also been leveled at Envi- ronmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Anne M. Gorsuch.

''Being administrator of the EPA is something like being a Marine commander during wartime, with issues coming at us from air, and land, and water,'' Mrs. Gorsuch says. ''Criti- cism comes with the territory.''

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The current EPA controversy is over the proposed rewrit- ing of the Clean Air Act in ways that industry says will stimu- late productivity. The Reagan administration appears deter- mined to push the changes through a reluctant Congress this month. Environmentalists charge that relaxing standards would seriously undermine past EPA achievements in clean- ing up the nation's air and water.

For the administration and for its critics, relaxing pollu- tion standards and delaying cleanup deadlines has become a key test of President Reagan's ''deregulation'' promises.

In a recent Monitor interview, Gorsuch insists she is deeply committed to ''protecting the quality of this country's air and water.'' In fact, she says, the present Clean Air Act, with its complex and at times contradictory regulations, of- ten stands in the way of improving air and water quality.

The former Colorado state legislator and corporate attor- ney says she is convinced that better management tech- niques can turn the EPA into a far more effective tool - with less federal money.

One reason she feels certain that savings can be made is her discovery that the construction grants program included 1,440 different grants involving $4.2 billion in unaudited fed- eral money. After looking closely at federally aided sewer projects, she plans new limits to cut federal obligations from $90 billion back to $23 billion.

Trimming the construction program will be tough. For instance, halting Chicago's ''Deep Tunnel'' plan for 132 miles of tunnels under the city for waste treatment and flood con- trol could save several billion dollars. But any project this large naturally has generated support not only in Chicago but in other areas eager for similar public works projects.

Gorsuch says she has not made any decision on Chicago's tunnel because the scientific evidence is still coming in. She makes the same argument for delaying any immediate steps to deal with the ''acid rain'' problem. Otherwise, she says, we could repeat the mistake of building tall stacks to cut down on emissions causing acid rain - only to discover this supposed ''solution'' spreads the problem further.

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Gorsuch says she also dislikes policies that set unrealistic goals, such as the 1970 Clean Air Act. ''We have to get back to reasonable environmental programs or else the whole sys- tem will simply collapse of its own weight.''

But critics charge that her policy changes are based on conservative Republican prejudices - not on scientific data. Gorsuch ''is not committed to protecting the environment, but to protecting the people who are adversely affecting the environment.'' says Henry Waxman (D) of California, chair- man of the House Health and the Environment subcommittee.

Describing herself and her realigned EPA as ''result-ori- ented,'' Gorsuch points to the Santa Fe Springs hazardous waste site near Los Angeles as an example of how it pays to replace confrontation with cooperation.

Following an explosion at the site in July, the EPA spent more than $1 million in ''Superfund'' money to begin site cleanup. EPA Waste Programs Enforcement Director Doug- las MacMillan explains that by ''developing negotiated agreements as an alternative to time-consuming and re- source-intensive litigation,'' Inmont Corporation voluntarily agreed to complete the Santa Fe Springs cleanup under EPA supervision.

Fourteen other parties, including the site's owners, even- tually may pay for the cleanup. Meanwhile Inmont, involved only because it had paid to have some wastes disposed of by the site owners, is footing all cleanup costs.

Such success stories haven't soothed Gorsuch's critics. In congressional hearings last month she was sharply attacked on the basis of reports that the EPA's budget and personel may be cut in half by 1984. Her answer was equally sharp: ''The agency can and must fulfill its congressional mandate, with reduced funding. That will occur with better management.''

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