Profiles in Scourges: Anne Gorsuch. Weekend Reader, Sun. Feb. 11
White House

Profiles in Scourges: Anne Gorsuch. Weekend Reader, Sun. Feb. 11

There is striking parallel between Ronald Reagan's environmental wrecking crew of years past and the current administration. Here is part 2 in a series looking back at Reagan rollbacks and characters.

Read part 1 on Reagan's Interior Secretary, James Watt.


A sharp aggressive lawyer who rose in western conservative circles, then elected to the Colorado legislature as part of a self-named group called the "House Crazies," Anne Gorsuch made a career of challenging what she saw as repressive federal regulation.

With Ronald Reagan's landslide election, she found herself at the helm of arguably the most "repressive" of the bunch, the Environmental Protection Agency. She cut an impressive figure. While Gorsuch was widely described as "charming," Denver's Rocky Mountain News added that "she could kick a bear to death with her bare feet."

In less than two years, Gorsuch oversaw a 22 percent cut in the EPA's budget and and cashiered nearly 20 percent of the EPA's personnel. A 1983 New York Times editorial tore into her management style, declaring "Anne Gorsuch inherited one of the most efficient and capable agencies in government. She has turned it into an Augean stable, reeking of cynicism, mismanagement and decay."

Environmental enforcement took a nosedive, as did the morale of career EPA employees. Gorsuch derided the "hysteria" of environmental groups, and pushed a wildly unpopular, ultimately unsuccessful proposal to burn toxic wastes aboard ships along the heavily-populated east coast.

Gorsuch differed from her Interior Department counterpart, James Watt, in two vital ways. First, she was not given to the ideologically-driven outbursts and poorly-timed jokes that eventually cost Watt his job.

Second, she instead found her way directly into political scandal. The Superfund program to clean up toxic waste sites came into being in the final days of the Jimmy Carter administration after the Love Canal disaster in New York State brought waste dumping into the spotlight. Superfund's great expectations sputtered, and Gorsuch's EPA seemed all too reluctant to tackle polluters and waste dumpers.

Congress launched multiple investigations into Superfund's struggles. Gorsuch refused to turn over thousands of EPA documents on the program, and was cited for contempt of Congress. A career EPA civil servant, Hugh Kaufman, took it upon himself to deliver much of the Superfund material to Congressional committees.

Rita Lavelle, a top deputy who oversaw the Superfund program, was convicted of perjury, sentenced to six months' imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. Nearly 20 other EPA officials resigned, eventually including Anne Gorsuch.

A month before her 1983 departure, Gorsuch married Bob Burford, another of the Colorado "house crazies" who became Director of the federal Bureau of Land Management.

In 1984, Anne Gorsuch Burford received another appointment from President Reagan to chair the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere. After non-binding votes of disapproval from both Houses of Congress, she turned the appointment down.

Her marriage to Burford was in divorce proceedings when he died in 1993. Retreating from public life, she spent many years in private law practice, specializing in chasing "deadbeat dads," according to her son, Neil Gorsuch.

Gorsuch was known for a two pack-a-day Marlboro cigarette habit, and on occasion smoked through public meetings and television interviews. She died of cancer in 2004 at age 62, but her legacy lives on: Neil Gorsuch, eldest of her three children, was sworn in as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017.

One more likely important difference between Anne Gorsuch and Scott Pruitt: In the early 80's, the Democrats still controlled the House of Representatives, and many Republicans still held strong sympathies for environmental protection. When Gorsuch departed, her replacement was William Ruckelshaus, a moderate Republican who had served as the first EPA Administrator in 1970. Ruckelshaus is widely viewed as having worked to restore public faith in EPA.

In 2018, there's speculation that Scott Pruitt could vacate the EPA job to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions should his rocky relationship with the President head further South. If so, potential Pruitt successors might include Andrew Wheeler, awaiting a full Senate vote to become the top EPA Deputy Administrator.

Wheeler's bona fides include a stint on the Senate staff of uber climate-denier James Inhofe (R-OK), and as a lobbyist for coal and uranium interests. As a lobbyist, Wheeler held fundraisers for Inhofe and for Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), the current chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

In the 1980's, Republicans came to view riding roughshod through environmental values as a liability. In 2018, it would appear to be a badge of honor.

Top Weekend News

Writing in Inside Climate News, Georgina Gustin reports on tax breaks that could help wind, solar, nuclear -- and clean coal, whether it exists or not.

No longer hot -- or cool? Toyota's hybrid Prius was all the rage back in 2012. But since then sales have been cut in half.

Smart write from Civil Eats on how the thunderous changes at EPA could impact farms and food policy.

Outrage! The NGO Global Witness reports that 197 environmental activists were murdered around the world in 2017.

Opinions and Editorials

Peter Gleick on Cape Town's water crisis, and what it heralds for many world cities.

Peter Dykstra and Steve Curwood on Living On Earth: A vital EPA office under threat; more exotic Trump appointees; and whatever happened to environmental justice?

Rollbacks & Other Trumpery

Suppose they staged a craven giveaway of resources and nobody came? Mining companies aren't responding to the minerals leases opened up in the Bears Ears area.

NBC News reports that EPA enforcement actions in 2017 hit a ten-year low.

In The Revelator, John Platt reports that the U.S. added 38% more oil and gas rigs in 2017.

E&E's Zack Colman reports on a meeting between Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and an Israeli energy official accused of illegal activity.

Bloomberg reports that the Trump Administration could be preparing to roll back auto fuel efficiency standards at the request of the auto industry.

An occasional reminder that unhinged climate denial is alive and well.

The climate cabal is in a panic. The Trump Administration is systematically dismantling President Obama's climate change legacy: Federal agencies are scrubbing references to climate change, President Trump announced the United States. would exit the Paris Climate Accord, and his cabinet is peddling American-made fossil fuels around the world.

Long before Scott Pruitt aimed his wrecking ball at EPA, Ronald Reagan's EPA chief took a swipe at the agency.

Sunrise in the woods

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

Can sweetgrass sequester carbon?
Jamie/Flickr

Can sweetgrass sequester carbon? Piikani Nation plans to find out

Studying the carbon capturing capabilities of sweetgrass is just one part of a larger vision for adapting to climate change in southern Alberta.

climate adaptation in peace-athabasca delta
Pat O'Malley/Flickr

A drying delta

From food to transportation, water is life for Indigenous peoples living in the remote Peace-Athabasca Delta. But in the face of climate change, their survival depends on their ability — and willingness — to adapt.

How fermented foods shaped the world
Photo by Micah Tindell on Unsplash

How fermented foods shaped the world

In her new book, Julia Skinner discusses the history and power of fermentation, microbes’ role in biodiversity, and how fermented foods can make us more resilient in the face of climate crisis.

N.Y. echoes Calif. as it eyes 100% clean car rules

Gov. Kathy Hochul ordered New York environmental officials to issue draft regulations that would require all sales of new light-duty cars to be “zero-emissions” vehicles by 2035.

Greenwashing enters a $22 trillion debt market, derailing climate goals

Sustainability-linked bonds let companies borrow cheaply if they meet environmental, social, and governance targets. A Bloomberg News analysis found those goals are weak.

Climate change for preschoolers: A TV show explores unmapped ground

There are almost no books, TV shows or other tools to help parents and teachers talk to preschoolers about climate change. “Octonauts: Above and Beyond” is one of the first to try.
From our Newsroom
Chemical recycling grows  along with concerns of its impacts

Chemical recycling grows — along with concerns about its environmental impacts

Industry says chemical recycling could solve the plastic waste crisis, but environmental advocates and some lawmakers are skeptical.

Failure of the universities: The culture gap is now near lethal

Universities are failing us

Our educational systems are failing to prepare people for existential environmental threats

Shell's new petrochemical complex in southwestern Pennsylvania

The Titans of Plastic

Pennsylvania becomes the newest sacrifice zone for America’s plastic addiction.

Ruth Greenspan Bell: Wealth and the climate dilemma

Ruth Greenspan Bell: Wealth and the climate dilemma

Developing countries that increase their fossil fuel production are at a crossroads: securing their own long-term well-being or earning revenue to finance programs to support immediate economic growth.

Solving the climate crisis will help both ‘sacrifice zones’ and ‘cute’ puffins

Solving the climate crisis will help both ‘sacrifice zones’ and ‘cute’ puffins

Curbing pollution for families in Chicago calms the climatic conditions that drive fish away from puffins half a continent away.

puffin tern recovery climate change

Good news: A good year for puffins and terns, despite climate change

A visit to a remote Maine island finds puffins and terns rebounding despite climate change

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.