Trump EPA nominee refuses to recuse himself from cases involving chemical companies he worked for

Toxicologist will have regulatory oversight over industry that paid him for two decades.

Worker sprays pesticide near a fountain in Miami to curb the spread of the Zika virus. CREDIT: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
Worker sprays pesticide near a fountain in Miami to curb the spread of the Zika virus. CREDIT: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency’s chemical and pesticides office refused Wednesday to pledge that he would recuse himself from decisions connected to the companies for whom he worked during his long career as a toxicologist for the chemical industry.

At a contentious confirmation hearing, Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee repeatedly asked Michael Dourson, nominated to serve as assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, whether he would recuse himself from decision-making where he saw a conflict with his past work. Dourson balked, saying he would rely on EPA ethics officials to make any decision on recusal.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), ranking member of the committee, brought a chart to the hearing room that listed some of the chemicals that companies had paid Dourson to study. “In each and every case, you concluded that the right safety standard for the chemicals should be tens, hundreds, even thousands of times less protective than the federal or state regulators did,” Carper said. “It is regrettably difficult to look at your record and conclude that you could be an impartial regulator.”

“One way that you could remedy the perception that you may not be able to be an impartial regulator would be to promise to recuse yourself if confirmed from working on any chemical that industry has paid you to study,” he said.

But Dourson declined to promise that he would recuse himself. “If confirmed, I will rely on EPA ethics officials to determine any issues for which I am to be recused,” he said.


In July, Trump announced his intent to nominate Dourson, a University of Cincinnati environmental health professor, to head the division of the EPA responsible for chemical safety and for enforcing the Toxic Substances Control Act. The EPA has cited “widespread praise” for the Dourson nomination, but environmental groups are strongly opposing his confirmation by the Senate.

More than 20 years ago, Dourson worked for the EPA as a staff scientist, bu his career took a very different direction when he left the agency in 1994 to found the Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA), a group that has produced reports minimizing concerns about the safety of chemicals produced by companies like DuPont, Dow, and Boeing. As head of the EPA’s chemical and pesticides office, he would oversee the agency’s regulation of industrial chemicals and pesticides — the same products manufactured by companies that funded much of Dourson’s private-sector work.

Putting Dourson in a job that is supposed to protect people from toxic chemicals “is like hiring Martin Shkreli to control the price of medicine,” Daniel Rosenberg, senior attorney in the Natural Resources Defense Council’s health and environment program, said Wednesday in a statement. Dourson has had “a long and profitable career as one of the chemical industry’s go-to scientists for hire to avoid toxic chemical safeguards,” Rosenberg said.

The Environmental Defense Fund examined the funding sources for several dozen papers Dourson authored or co-authored between 2005 and 2017. Funding was not disclosed for about 25 percent of the papers. Half of the remaining papers were funded exclusively by industry sources, while most of the other papers were partially funded by industry or reflected workshops involving mainly industry-affiliated participants, according to the EDF.

Dourson or his company were paid for their work on these papers by more than three dozen companies or trade associations, involving about 36 different chemicals. At least two of these chemicals — TCE and 1,4-dioxane — are under active review by the EPA office Dourson has been nominated to head.


Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) noted that Dourson’s studies of dioxane came up with a safety standard that defended an exposure rate 1,000 times greater than the EPA’s health-based safety level. Like other senators, Markey asked Dourson if he would recuse himself from the agency’s review of dioxane. Once again, Dourson declined to say he would.

Markey responded, “You’re not just an outlier on this science, you’re outrageous in how far from the mainstream of science you actually are. It’s pretty clear you have never met a chemical you didn’t like.”

In 2002, the team led by Dourson and TERA published a toxicity assessment that put forth a “safe” level for the compound in drinking water of 150 parts per billion (ppb) for PFOA, a carcinogenic compound formerly used by DuPont to make Teflon. Dourson’s safe level was 150 times higher than what DuPont’s own scientists had concluded 14 years earlier. Dourson’s 2002 study was commissioned by West Virginia and included scientists from the EPA, but it was paid for by DuPont.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) asked Dourson to explain how his analysis of PFOA from 15 years ago ended up being far off the mark. His recommended safe level of 150 ppb for PFOA in drinking water, compares to the current EPA number of only 0.07 ppb. Dourson responded that science on PFOA has advanced significantly in the years since his testing came up with the 150 ppb number.

“Your nomination is one of the more shocking I’ve seen,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) told Dourson. “It almost seems like a bit of a scene out of some Disney movie where there’s corporate villains that do harm to our environment or seek to if not for the heroic actions of others.”

Despite the grave concerns with his nomination, Dourson is expected to get voted out of committee — composed of 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats — and then win full approval by the Republican-controlled Senate.