Two Republican senators will not commit to supporting Michael Dourson, President Donald Trump’s choice to lead the EPA’s chemical safety office—an action that could jeopardize a nominee who already has been a source of Democrats’ complaints.
The offices of both of the Senators from North Carolina, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, told Bloomberg Environment that they are still weighing where to come down on Dourson’s nomination. If the two Republicans withhold their support, every other Senate Republican would need to vote in Dourson’s favor for him to be confirmed without any Democratic votes.
Burr and Tillis represent a state with a major chemical contamination problem at the Camp Lejeune military base. From the 1950s to the 1980s, Marines and their families drank water with excessively high concentrations of trichloroethylene, a known carcinogen, and other toxic chemicals.
Burr was the chief backer of a 2012 law (Public Law No: 112-154) signed by President Barack Obama that makes it easier for Camp Lejeune veterans to receive cancer care through the Department of Veteran Affairs. Earlier this year, Burr and Tillis introduced a bill (S.758) to extend health services for all illnesses linked to toxic chemical exposures at Camp Lejeune.
Dourson, who would lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, has sparked numerous complaints from Democrats and environmental groups over his ties with industry.
Burr spokeswoman Rebecca Glover told Bloomberg Environment in an email that the senator “is evaluating Mr. Dourson’s record and will make a determination based on the best interests of North Carolinians.”
A spokesman for Tillis also stopped short of endorsing Dourson’s nomination. “Sen. Tillis and his staff are doing their due diligence to assess the record of the nominee,” Daniel Keylin told Bloomberg Environment in an email.
‘Scientific Hired Gun’
Dourson—who recently left his position as a professor of risk assessment and environmental health at the University of Cincinnati and serves as an adviser to the EPA as he awaits his confirmation—has come under fire for his work with the chemicals industry.
“He’s basically a scientific hired gun,” said Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine sergeant who lived at Camp Lejeune. “He does risk assessments for the people with deep pockets.”
Ensminger’s 9-year-old daughter died from leukemia in 1985. Burr named his 2012 legislation to help Camp Lejeune victims after Janey Ensminger.
He co-founded the website The Few, the Proud, the Forgotten, which provides information to Camp Lejeune residents who face health problems as a result of chemical exposure.
Ensminger published an Oct. 31 op-ed in the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer opposing Dourson. Before he knew his piece had published, he received a text message from Natasha Hickman, Burr’s chief of staff, asking him to call her, he said.
“I told her right upfront, my preference would be for Sen. Burr to go to [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell and say, ‘Hey, don’t even put this guy up for a vote,’” Ensminger told Bloomberg Environment.
Hickman’s response did not satisfy him, he said.
“She said, you know, it’s kind of difficult for somebody to vote against a Republican nominee from a Republican president when you’re a Republican senator,” he said.
Glover did not comment on that conversation with Ensminger when asked about it by Bloomberg Environment.
As a consultant for companies like Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, and Koch Industries, Dourson worked on assessments that downplayed the risks of a number of likely carcinogens. Specifically, he advocated for a 1,4-dioxane safety standard that was 1,000 times weaker than the EPA’s standard. The chemical 1,4-dioxane is a likely carcinogen, according to the Environmental Working Group.
His firm, Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment, was hired by the state of West Virginia to assess the risk of perfluorooctanoic acid, an industrial chemical linked to cancer and other health problems following water contamination in the state.
TERA’s recommended level was more than 2,000 times less protective than the EPA’s current proposed health advisory level. Dourson said at his nomination hearing Oct. 4 that this was a result of advancements in science between his recommendation and the time the EPA’s proposal was released in 2016.
Scott Faber, who heads government relations at the Environmental Working Group, told Bloomberg Environment that he’s part of a coalition of groups opposed to Dourson that are targeting senators in more than a dozen states. He wouldn’t specify the states.
Faber said his coalition includes families of those who lived on military bases.
Dourson’s nomination was voted out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee 11–10 Oct. 25. McConnell has not yet filed cloture on his nomination or that of several other EPA nominees, with the exception of William Wehrum to serve as the EPA’s assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a first term-senator and former Army lieutenant colonel, also published an op-ed criticizing Dourson, focusing on the experience of military bases around the country where the water and soil have been contaminated with chemicals.
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(Scott Faber is part of a coalition opposing Michael Dourson's appointment at EPA, not leading it.)