The odds of Michael Dourson getting confirmed to serve as the Environmental Protection Agency’s top chemicals regulator are growing slimmer by the day as Republican senators express reservations about the long-time industry consultant.
Two Republican senators from North Carolina — Richard Burr and Thom Tillis — came out against Dourson on Wednesday, citing the nominee’s work to downplay the negative effects of a chemical that has been found in drinking water across their state. On Thursday, another Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine, said she is “leaning against” supporting Dourson’s nomination to serve as assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, The Hill reported.
A vote against Dourson by Collins, combined with Senate Democrats unanimously opposing the nomination, would sink his appointment to serve as the nation’s top chemicals regulator.
The downfall of a Trump nominee at the hands of Republicans would represent a major anomaly. Republican senators have voted in favor of other administration nominees with major conflicts of interest. Last week, on a party-line vote, the Senate approved William Wehrum to lead the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. Wehrum, an industry lawyer and lobbyist, has represented companies who regularly filed legal challenges to the EPA’s clean air regulations.
Dourson is already working at EPA as a senior adviser to Administrator Scott Pruitt, a position that did not require him to go through Senate confirmation, E&E News reported last month. It is unclear whether Dourson would remain at the EPA in his adviser role if his nomination fails.
Richard Denison, lead senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, told ThinkProgress he would find it “enormously troubling” if Dourson chose to stay on “in the face of majority opposition in the U.S. Senate to his being at the agency.”
Senators from many states “are hearing from their constituents about their deep concerns over Dourson, as was certainly happening in North Carolina,” Denison said.
With Dourson facing intense opposition, industry-funded groups are running online advertisements in support of his nomination. The Center for Accountability in Science — a group tied to Richard Berman, a long-time industry public affairs official dubbed “Dr. Evil” by his opponents — is producing online advertising and opinion pieces in favor of Dourson, E&E News reported Wednesday.
On the opposite side, Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, tweeted late Wednesday that Dourson’s nomination “must be pulled” and that he should not remain in an unconfirmed role at the EPA as an adviser to Pruitt. “Dr. Dourson is too extreme and the wrong choice to oversee the chemicals Americans encounter every day,” Carper added.
Dr. Dourson's nomination must be pulled, he should not remain in an unconfirmed role at @EPA and we must find a credible regulator who the American people can trust.
— Senator Tom Carper (@SenatorCarper) November 16, 2017
If confirmed, Dourson, a former University of Cincinnati environmental health professor, would head the division of the EPA responsible for enforcing the Toxic Substances Control Act. More than 20 years ago, Dourson worked for the EPA as a staff scientist, but his career took a very different direction when he left the agency in 1994 to found the Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment, a group that has produced reports minimizing concerns about the safety of chemicals produced by companies like DuPont, Dow, and Boeing.
Dourson has argued that children aren’t more sensitive to toxic substances than adults, a position far outside of the established scientific consensus. Fifteen years ago, he authored a paper paid for by the American Chemistry Council and CropLife America concluding that children over six months are no more sensitive to chemicals than adults, and may be less sensitive in some cases, Quartz’s Zoë Schlanger reported Wednesday.
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.
“I will not be supporting the nomination of Michael Dourson,” Burr said in a statement Wednesday. “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.”
In a separate statement, Tillis’ office said the senator “has done his due diligence in reviewing Mr. Dourson’s body of work” and “still has serious concerns about his record and cannot support his nomination,” according to the Wilmington Star News.
Documents uncovered by veterans groups suggested Marine Corps leaders were slow to respond when tests first found evidence of tap water contaminated with harmful chemicals at concentrations from 240 to 3,400 times levels permitted by safety standards. Camp Lejeune residents developed cancer and other ailments that were attributed to the contaminated water.
DuPont and its spinoff company, Chemours, manufacture chemicals at a plant upstream of Wilmington, North Carolina. The plant produces a chemical called GenX, a potentially cancer-causing substance that is a byproduct of DuPont and Chemours’ manufacturing processes.
In 2015, Dourson was paid to testify in DuPont’s defense in a lawsuit brought by an Ohio woman who alleged she contracted kidney cancer from drinking water contaminated by a toxic chemical emitted from a DuPont plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. A federal jury in Ohio found DuPont liable and awarded the woman $1.6 million in damages.
“No one who has spent decades arguing on behalf of the chemical industry for weaker safety standards should be charged with reviewing chemicals for the EPA. It would be like putting an arsonist in charge of the fire department,” Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said in a statement Wednesday. “We applaud Sens. Burr and Tillis for making public health their top priority.”