Critics say Michael Dourson is an industry ‘hired gun’ who won’t put public health concerns first

WILMINGTON — Citing the state’s water woes and Michael Dourson’s track record, both of North Carolina’s senators announced late Wednesday they will not support the Trump Administration’s nominee for the Environmental Protection Agency’s top chemical post, possibly imperiling the appointment.

Dourson, a professor in the University of Cincinnati’s Risk Science Center, has been nominated to the EPA’s assistant administrator for toxic substances position, a role in which he would oversee the Toxic Substances Control Act and regulations on a variety of chemicals.

“I will not be supporting the nomination of Michael Dourson,” Burr said in a statement. “With his record and our state’s history of contamination at Camp Lejeune as well as the current GenX water issues in Wilmington, I am not confident he is the best choice for our country.”

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has voted to advance Dourson’s nomination, but has it not yet been scheduled for a vote by the full body. During the committee hearing last month, Dourson’s ties to industry and how they would impact his work drew attention, while residents in North Carolina have argued against the appointment for similar reasons.

In a statement, Tillis’ office said, “Over the last several weeks, Senator Tillis has done his due diligence in reviewing Mr. Dourson’s body of work. Senator Tillis still has serious concerns about his record and cannot support his nomination.”

Environmental groups are concerned that, if appointed, Dourson’s track record could be an indication of how he would govern.

“We’ve never had an industry scientist for hire in this role. In the 40-year history of this job, we’ve only hired public health regulators, not industry hired guns,” said Scott Faber, the vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy group.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is also believed to be poised to opposed Dourson’s nomination, according to The Intercept. Dourson needs a simple majority to be confirmed, a hurdle that would be impossible to clear if every senator who caucuses as a Democrat joins Burr, Collins and Tillis in opposing Dourson.

Lejeune’s shadow

Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine Corps master sergeant whose daughter died of leukemia connected to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, has vocally opposed Dourson’s nomination.

Last month, he joined Democratic Senators Tom Udall and Richard Blumenthal at a press conference in Washington, D.C., and he has also met personally with Tillis and representatives of Burr’s staff to discuss the nomination.

“We don’t deal with somebody that is dangerous,” Ensminger said. “This guy is dangerous. This guy is just like somebody with an assault weapon, a fully loaded assault weapon with umpteen million magazines. That’s how I view this guy, that’s the damage this guy could do to future generations.”

Prior to joining the University of Cincinnati, Dourson founded and ran the Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment Center, a nonprofit whose research was often funded by industry.

Any vote for Dourson would, Ensminger added, be “a slap in the face” to the victims of the contamination at Camp Lejeune.

Late Wednesday, when told about Burr and Tillis’ stances, Ensminger said, “It’s great. I am more than pleased by their response. They’re living up to the work that they’ve done (on Camp Lejeune).”

“Reason to be concerned”

Ansje Miller, the Center for Environmental Health’s director of policy and partnerships, has also pushed back against Dourson’s nomination. The group delivered a petition with more than 145,000 signatures and a letter representing more than 100 organizations — including Cape Fear River Watch — to senators before the committee vote.

If he is approved, Dourson would oversee the implementation of 2016′s Lautenberg Act, the first overhaul of TSCA since it was originally implemented in 1976.

“He’s got this long history of being hired by companies to basically bless these chemicals, which in many cases are really dangerous chemicals and in many cases are chemicals that the EPA is either considering for regulation or will be soon,” said Miller, who is based in Hillsborough.

Among the reforms to the chemical safety laws was a mandate to review the safety of chemicals already used in commerce, with the first set of prioritized risk evaluations including 1,4 dioxane; perchloroethylene (PCE); and trichloroethylene (TCE). Dourson would ultimately be in charge of deciding what risk levels are appropriate and which chemicals should next be considered.

There are no health standards for GenX, the chemical researchers have found in drinking and raw water throughout the Lower Cape Fear region. Using the research available to them, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has set a health goal of 140 parts per trillion.

Environmental groups have pointed to Dourson’s work on 1,4 dioxane — a likely carcinogen that has been found in drinking water throughout the state — as a key example of their opposition to his appointment. In 2014, Dourson, working with PPG Industries, published a paper arguing for safe levels of the chemical 1,000 times higher than the EPA’s suggested standard.

Speaking in front of the Senate committee last month, according to NBC News, Dourson said, “I have been objective in my work and applied sound science to come to my conclusions.”

Dourson and other TERA researchers worked with West Virginia in 2002 to assess the toxicity of C8, the chemical that eventually proven toxic enough that DuPont was compelled to replace it with GenX.

The team recommended a standard of 150,000 ppt — a level 375 times higher than the EPA’s 2009 health advisory level in drinking water and more than 2,000 times higher than the revised advisory level.

“I have reason to be concerned about what he may do on GenX because of what he did on GenX’s chemical cousins like PFOA,” Miller said. “That doesn’t give me a lot of confidence for the health of the people of the Cape Fear region drinking the water.”