Update (December 14, 2017): Michael Dourson has withdrawn his nomination to head the EPA’s division of chemical safety. Read the statement from UCS President Ken Kimmell, Dourson’s Withdrawal a Victory for Science, Health.
Three weeks ago, North Carolina’s Republican senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, announced their opposition to the nomination of Michael Dourson to run the office of chemical safety in the Environmental Protection Agency. Only one more vote is needed to doom his nomination, assuming unified opposition from all 48 Democrats and Independents.
The question is, who will have the courage to step forward next?
It should take no courage at all, if science and public health matter. Dourson is already in the EPA, serving as an adviser to Administrator Scott Pruitt. But, given Dourson’s outrageous record of working to undermine science-based standards for toxic chemicals on behalf of the chemical industry, he is clearly unfit to lead the office overseeing chemical safety at the federal level.
Belittling the health effects of dangerous chemicals
Dourson’s private research firm has represented companies such as Dow, Monsanto, and PPG Industries, and has had some research funded by Koch Industries.
He and his firm have routinely judged chemicals to be safe at levels hundreds of times greater than the current standards issued by the EPA. Among those chemicals whose health effects he has tried to belittle is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is used in the manufacture of nonstick cookware such as Teflon and stain-resistant household products such as carpets. Dourson helped the state of West Virginia set a safety standard for the chemical 2,000 times less strict than the level deemed safe by the EPA.
That decision alone threatens the health of many Americans. In 2012, research by scientists at Emory University found workers at a West Virginia DuPont PFOA plant were at roughly three times the risk of dying from mesothelioma or chronic kidney disease as other DuPont workers, and faced similarly elevated risks for kidney cancer and other non-cancer kidney diseases. A more recent study, published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health linked reductions in exposure to PFOA across the country to a sharp decline in pregnancy-related problems including low-birth-weight babies.
In North Carolina, an as-yet-unregulated chemical meant to replace PFOA as a non-sticking agent, Gen X, has already been found at significant levels in the Cape Fear River. And the state is still reeling from nearly 1 million people being exposed to drinking water at Camp Lejeune that was contaminated with chemicals such as benzene, vinyl chloride, and trichloroethylene (TCE) from the 1950s through the 1980s. The Obama administration established a $2.2 billion disability compensation program for Camp Lejeune veterans suffering from cancer.
Serious concerns from North Carolina
Expecially troubling, if confirmed, Dourson would be responsible for oversight of the 2016 Toxic Substances Control Act. In its final months, the Obama administration selected the first 10 chemicals to be reviewed under the new act for their “potential for high hazard.” Of the 10, Dourson has claimed in research that several were safe at levels far exceeding the science-based standards currently established by the EPA. They include solvents linked to cancer such as 1,4 dioxane, 1-Bromopropane, and TCE, the latter of which has been found in the water contamination at Camp Lejeune.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced Dourson’s nomination to the full Senate in late October on a party-line 11-10 vote. But the candidate’s past was too biased for Burr and Tillis, despite the fact that both voted to confirm EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Burr said of Dourson in a statement, “With his record and our state’s history of contamination at Camp Lejeune as well as the current Gen X water issues in Wilmington, I am not confident he is the best choice for our country.”
Tillis’s office seconded that with a statement saying, “Senator Tillis still has serious concerns about his record and cannot support his nomination.”
Issues of great importance in Maine
In the immediate aftermath of Burr’s and Tillis’s rejection of Dourson, it seemed that Maine Senator Susan Collins might quickly follow suit. She said, “I certainly share the concerns that have been raised by Senator Burr and Senator Tillis. I think it’s safe to say that I am leaning against him.”
Collins has said nothing since then. Her office did not respond to repeated requests this week from the Union of Concerned Scientists on her latest position. And Dourson’s nomination stands in limbo, presumably as the Republican leadership worries that they may not have the votes in the full Senate to confirm him. In theory, Collins’ concerns should mirror those of Burr and Tillis because Maine has dealt with its share of water and soil pollution at military bases such as the former Brunswick Naval Station and Loring Air Force Base, both Superfund sites. She has also been active in bipartisan efforts to deal with cross-state air pollution.
Collins was the only Republican to vote against Pruitt’s nomination to run the EPA. Pruitt, who repeatedly sued the EPA on behalf of industry as attorney general of Oklahoma, is aggressively attempting to relax chemical regulations and reverse Obama-era rules such as the Clean Power Plan. The EPA has moved to remove products containing PFOA from being studied for lasting impact in the environment and refused to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, linked to damaging the developing brains of fetuses and young children.
When she announced her opposition to Pruitt, Collins said, “I have significant concerns that Mr. Pruitt has actively opposed and sued EPA on numerous issues that are of great importance to the state of Maine, including mercury controls for coal-fired power plants and efforts to reduce cross-state air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. His actions leave me with considerable doubts about whether his vision for the EPA is consistent with the Agency’s critical mission to protect human health and the environment.”
If Collins truly maintains those concerns, she surely would not want to augment the problems of Pruitt’s already disgraceful tenure by supporting Dourson. But even if she for some reason shies away from a no vote, there are many other Republican senators whose states also have military installations with rampant pollution affecting adjacent communities.
Many more Republican senators should be unnerved
With Camp Lejeune as a haunting example of military pollution of its own soldiers and adjacent communities, the US armed forces are in the midst of investigating potential water contamination at nearly 400 such active and shuttered sites. That fact should unnerve many more Republicans, even those who generally support Pruitt’s actions. According to a Politico report three weeks ago, Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, and Bob Corker of Tennessee were noncommittal about supporting Dourson’s nomination.
Toomey’s office released a statement also reported by the Bucks County Courier Times saying he “remains concerned about the PFOA issue” in towns next to closed military bases in the Philadelphia area, where compounds from firefighting foams may have leached into drinking water sources. Elevated levels of pancreatic cancer have been found in the area.
With so much concern about elevated levels of cancer around the nation linked to water pollution, this is not the time to put someone in charge who made a career out of downplaying the risks of chemicals. It is bad enough that Dourson is already at EPA, advising Pruitt. But that remains a long way from actually having his hand on the pen that can help sign away people’s safety.
He should never hold that pen.