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Who’s Next, With Embattled EPA Toxics Nominee Dourson Out?

Dec. 14, 2017, 6:52 PMUpdated: Dec. 14, 2017, 10:52 PM

Wanted: Someone to run the EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention with a history of leadership on chemicals, toxic substances or pesticides. Individuals with baggage need not apply.

The Trump administration is on the lookout for a new pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency chemical safety office after its first nominee, toxicologist Michael Dourson, withdrew his name from consideration Dec. 13 as criticism mounted about his work with the chemical industry.

Dourson, who served as an adviser at the EPA as he awaited Senate confirmation, was previously head of the nonprofit Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment at the University of Cincinnati, which analyzed the risk of several chemicals for local and state governments.

But it was Dourson’s work with companies such as Dow AgroSciences LLC, DuPont, and Koch Industries that drew the ire of Senate Democrats and environmental organizations.

Widely regarded as a sharp scientist with a long career in chemical risk analysis—he spent 15 years at the EPA under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton and was considered to head the EPA’s toxicity assessment program under President Barack Obama—Dourson’s intellect and experience could not overcome his reputation as a close ally to industry, particularly as the agency overhauls its chemical review rules under the 2016 Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act.

‘You Don’t Have to Have a Toxicologist’

A nominee without that history—possibly an official in an environmental office from a red state—could fit the bill, Ben Dunham, a senior policy adviser in the Washington, D.C., office of Holland & Knight LLP, told Bloomberg Environment.

“You don’t have to have a toxicologist to run the chemical safety law. You need somebody who’s respected, who has integrity and is a good leader,” said Dunham, a former adviser to the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the namesake of the law to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act. “Leave the execution of the Lautenberg Act and the other statutes to the career staff and the technical experts.”

Dunham mentioned Stephen Owens, the assistant administrator for the chemicals office from 2009 to 2011 under Obama, as a good model for a candidate who could win approval from Senate Democrats.

Before coming to Washington, Owens was director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, where he oversaw matters of air quality, water quality, hazardous waste, renewable energy, and children’s environmental health. He is currently an attorney with Squire Patton Boggs in Phoenix.

Growing Divide

“No comment on that,” Owens said, laughing, when asked by Bloomberg Environment if he would consider returning to the agency to head the chemical safety office. “I served my time.”

Indeed, the position of assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention position today is very different from the role he played at the EPA, Owens said. Historically, the job has not attracted controversy, but the divide between industry and environmental advocacy groups appears to have grown as the agency tackles TSCA reform, he added.

“There has been a lot of distrust that has been built up,” he said.

The approval and regulation of pesticides, the biggest portion of the office’s workload, has also highlighted the divide between environmental advocates and industry.

The administration should find somebody who can work with the career staff, Owens added. Hiring a career employee to fill the role has a precedent: The last political appointee in the role, Jim Jones, was nominated in 2011 after nearly 25 years at the EPA.

No Industry Experience? Not So Easy

Some industry ties, however, may be a prerequisite for the next chemical safety office pick, Dimitrios Karakitsos, a partner at Holland & Knight who is at the other end of the political spectrum from Dunham, told Bloomberg Environment.

“There are certainly qualified people out there, but not a lot who really understand how the program works that don’t have some level of industry experience at some point in their careers,” Karakitsos told Bloomberg Environment. He worked on the bipartisan TSCA reform law as a Republican staffer on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The Environmental Defense Fund—which noticed a pattern of industry-friendly conclusions from Dourson about 15 years ago—mounted a vigorous and ultimately successful campaign with other environmental advocacy groups to kill his nomination. Dourson’s future chances at heading the chemical safety office dropped significantly when North Carolina’s two Republican senators publicly opposed his nomination Nov. 15.

Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis said they would not back Dourson’s nomination, citing his work to lower chemical safety standards. North Carolina is home to Camp Lejeune, where Marines and their families were exposed to chemicals in drinking water between the 1950s and the 1980s. The state also is struggling with water contaminated with the chemical GenX.

Emails Show Links With Trade Group

The Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment repeatedly concluded in its analyses that certain chemicals, including carcinogens and neurotoxins, should be considered safe at higher levels than what the EPA or state agencies recommended. These included assessments for perfluorooctanoic acid, the chemical used in making Teflon that has contaminated water bodies in several states.

Most recently, The New York Times published emails obtained from the University of Cincinnati under the Freedom of Information Act regarding the Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment.

The correspondence shows that Dourson discussed an academic paper with the trade group, the American Chemistry Council, that summarized data from a study of tetrabromobisphenol A, a brominated flame retardant that is being evaluated by the EPA for its toxicity.

(Updated with comments from Stephen Owens.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiffany Stecker in Washington at tstecker@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bloombergenvironment.com

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