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Former EPA chief in Reagan admin. Anne Gorsuch Burford: ‘I used to be the head of EPA, but it didn’t work out’


‘I used to be the head of EPA, but it didn’t work out’

“I am often asked if I am bitter about what happened. I am not bitter. I had quite a ride.”

Those words were written by an EPA administrator who resigned under a cloud of scandal. But it wasn’t Scott Pruitt; it was Anne Gorsuch Burford back in 1986.

Pruitt has been drawing comparisons to the Reagan-era EPA chief since he was first nominated by President Trump. They were both Washington outsiders who came in as rising stars in conservative circles and in the Republican Party. They made big promises to rein in an agency they thought had gotten unwieldy. They quickly alienated the agency’s career staff and got reputations for secrecy. They both thought they were unfairly attacked by the press and environmentalists.

Now they have another thing in common: They both resigned under pressure.

Big questions remain about Pruitt’s future. It’s unclear whether he wants a career in politics or whether voters would look past his alleged scandals. The results of more than a dozen pending investigations into his behavior could clear his name or offer more fodder for his critics.

In the meantime, he might find some tips — or at least some empathy — in Burford’s memoir.

She published “Are You Tough Enough?” a few years after her 1983 resignation from EPA. She was under siege from Congress, and in the press, over allegations of her agency’s mismanagement of the Superfund program.

E&E News obtained a copy of the book, which is now out of print, on Amazon in 2015 for 1 cent plus the cost of shipping. It was discarded from the Chicago Public Library. Copies are now going for $5.78 on Amazon (with free shipping).

Burford died of cancer in 2004 at age 62. Her obituary in The Washington Post described her as “one of the most controversial” figures in the early Reagan administration.

“A firm believer that the federal government, and specifically the EPA, was too big, too wasteful and too restrictive of business, Ms. Burford cut her agency’s budget by 22 percent. She boasted that she reduced the thickness of the book of clean water regulations from six inches to a half-inch,” the Post wrote.

Burford started at EPA in May 1981. She had been a corporate attorney and a state politician in Colorado but was wary of the Washington, D.C., media as soon as she arrived.

“[T]he day after my nomination was announced by the White House, the Washington Post ran a long and basically unflattering article about me, which stressed all the negatives the reporter could find,” she wrote. “Unlike the press coverage I had received back in Denver, my Washington coverage began on an unfavorable note — and built to a nasty crescendo.”

Burford grew to dislike environmentalists, too.

“In my experience with Washington-based environmental lobbyists, their main concern is seeing how much money they can raise for their organizations by scaring the American public half to death. The truth about the vast majority of them is that they are not interested in the environment at all. They are just interested in power, political power, and the environment is just a platform for them.”

As the criticisms of her mounted, Burford wrote that her public relations people “were always after me to spend more time on what might be termed a ‘defensive p.r.’ effort, but I wasn’t interested. In fact, I got so used to being attacked that I posted Abraham Lincoln’s quotation on the door outside my office: ‘If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business.'”

By early 1983, she wrote, “like mortar shells, one charge after another hit the airwaves and the front pages. And they all exploded. … [B]ad press, when there’s enough of it, takes on a hard reality of its own.”

In the days leading up to her resignation, she was dogged by the press, she recalled. Then-Interior Secretary James Watt “finally gave us some of his security people — an unmarked car and a driver, and another guy or two, Interior employees, who were tough guys, but very nice.”

On a “gray March afternoon,” she went to the White House to resign in person. She told Reagan he was being “badly misserved by the people who have been advising you on this,” she wrote. Reagan was uncomfortable, she added. “He wanted to accept my resignation, not to hear criticism of his staff or any discussion of EPA.” She went that night to a friend’s townhouse in Arlington, Va., “talking and drinking, and eventually sending out for Chinese food, which I hardly touched.” She “may have shed a tear or two,” Burford wrote, “but I did not break down. At least not then.”

She didn’t want to enter EPA headquarters, so she rented a room at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel the next day to hold a press conference. Because she had already resigned, she had to pay $1,000 of her own money to rent the room.

Burford recalled that her son, Neil Gorsuch, now a Supreme Court justice but then a high school student at Georgetown Preparatory School, was upset. He told her: “You never should have resigned. You didn’t do anything wrong. You only did what the president ordered.” She told him, “Honey, relax. It isn’t everything it appears to be.”

In the 1986 book, she recalled a “bout with the blues” after leaving EPA. She had married Robert Burford, director of the Bureau of Land Management under Reagan, a month before her resignation. They were in the process of getting divorced when he died in 1993, according to The New York Times.