Gorsuch hasn’t been a household name in the nation’s capital for more than 30 years, not since the late Anne Gorsuch Burford stood at the center of the worst scandal in the history of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Now her son, appellate Judge Neil Gorsuch, is President Donald Trump’s choice to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Burford, known as Anne Gorsuch until she remarried in 1983, was among a band of allies of arch-conservative Colorado brewery magnate Joseph Coors who were swept into senior government jobs under Republican President Ronald Reagan. An attorney and former Colorado state legislator, Gorsuch was known for an anti-regulatory bent.
Her stewardship as EPA administrator was marked by a string of revelations of cozy ties with chemical companies and attempts to purge the agency of scientists and enforcement staffers tasked with minimizing the presence of toxins in the air and water. Headlines about the scandal dominated the news for months in late 1982 and early 1983.
There were secret “hit lists” of agency employees targeted for dismissal, decisions to ease regulation of dioxin and dangerous pesticides, and allegations that Burford made politically driven decisions to slow cleanups at Superfund toxic waste sites – those containing the most hazardous chemicals.
When a House of Representatives subcommittee subpoenaed agency records about three of the Superfund sites, Burford refused to turn them over, leading to a contempt of Congress citation that threatened her with jail time.
Rita Lavelle, the assistant administrator who headed the Superfund program, which required responsible companies to pay millions of dollars to clean up the nation’s worst toxic messes, got into an even worse legal pickle. She perjured herself in closed-door congressional testimony when she denied having a conflict of interest due to her past employment by one of the polluting companies. She later went to jail.
After hiring a Denver attorney as a consultant while he simultaneously represented Chemical Waste Management Inc., the nation’s largest hazardous-waste disposal company, Burford lifted a moratorium against dumping highly toxic chemicals at landfills for 10 days – long enough for the firm to dispose of dozens of drums of highly toxic waste in repositories with questionable lining to protect underground aquifers.
The head of the EPA’s office of water expedited a permit for the same firm to incinerate dioxin and highly toxic PCBs on vessels in the Gulf of Mexico when the news media exposed the plan. It was quickly scuttled amid public outrage.
As multiple congressional committees held hearings on EPA mismanagement, more than 20 agency officials resigned, most of them Reagan political appointees.
Burford was the last, resigning on March 9, 1983, after White House lawyers refused to back up her claim of executive privilege to justify her refusal to surrender the Superfund files.
Over the next year, Burford was stopped by a traffic cop on suspicion of drunk driving and told a reporter that “they should bomb the Justice Department” if the agency refused to cover her legal defense.
She died of cancer in 2004 at age 62, leaving behind a bit of reputational baggage for her son.