EPA Chemical Office Pick Has Risk Experience, Industry Ties

By Tiffany Stecker and Steve Gibb

President Donald Trump’s choice to head the EPA’s chemical safety and pesticides office is winning praise from the American Chemistry Council and other industry groups, but some ex-agency officials say Michael Dourson’s ties to industry need to be scrutinized.

Trump late July 17 announced his intent to nominate Dourson, a professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati and founder of the Risk Science Center. Dourson spent 15 years at the Environmental Protection Agency’s offices in Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., and Region 5 headquarters in Chicago under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

After leaving the agency in 1995, he founded Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA), a regulatory and chemical risk analysis firm that became the Risk Science Center when it joined with the University of Cincinnati in 2015.

“His knowledge, experience and leadership will strengthen EPA’s processes for evaluating and incorporating high quality science into regulatory decision making,” American Chemistry Council spokesman Jon Corley said. “The Senate should act on Dr. Dourson’s nomination without delay as it comes during a crucial point in the implementation of the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act.”

And Jay Vroom, president of the pesticide trade association CropLife America, hailed the choice. “We’re delighted with the science and policy experience Dr. Dourson has under the industrial chemical and pesticide laws,” Vroom told Bloomberg BNA.

But Bob Sussman, a former EPA deputy administrator and senior policy counsel to the EPA administrator, said in an email that senators should look at Dourson’s industry ties “to determine whether he has the impartiality and commitment to objective science necessary for sound public health decisions.”

No information was immediately available on when the Senate might receive or begin considering Dourson’s nomination.

Risk Assessment Background

Dourson was considered in 2014 to lead the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System, which identifies and characterizes chemicals’ health hazards. The job went instead to Vincent Cogliano, then acting director of IRIS and currently an employee at the EPA.

Dourson has published widely in the fields of environmental risk assessment by co-authoring more than 150 peer-reviewed articles and has given more than 150 invited presentations, according to his biography on the University of Cincinnati’s website.

Most recently, Dourson served as a member of the EPA Science Advisory Board, where he chaired an ammonia chemical review panel.

In 2014, the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News published an investigation of TERA, suggesting it worked closely with the chemical and tobacco industries to fast-track chemical risk assessments. Dourson said in response that the criticism didn’t bother him: “We get criticized by everyone. But that doesn’t change the fact that TERA is neutral.”

Dourson defended his decision to work with the tobacco industry. “Jesus hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors. He had dinner with them,” he said, according to the investigation. “We’re an independent group that does the best science for all these things. Why should we exclude anyone that needs help?”

Vroom said his organization has no doubts that Dourson could become acclimated to pesticide issues after a background in the industrial chemicals world.

“The same science and risk assessment principles apply to assessing pesticides,” Vroom said. “Having a leader in place and the extra capacity that brings is what’s important, and we commend the president and Administrator [Scott] Pruitt on this nomination.”

Unease Among NGO Community

The Environmental Defense Fund is opposing the nomination, and farmworker groups are raising concerns about EPA decision-making and several worker protection rules that the toxics office oversees.

“Farmworkers face unique pesticide risks, and if confirmed, we hope the EPA’s toxics office under Dourson won’t continue to delay the farmworker protection standard and certification of pesticide applicators rule,” Virginia Ruiz, director of environmental and occupational health at Farmworker Justice, told Bloomberg BNA. The latter rule creates more standardized training and certification requirements for applicators.

Officials at the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund said they plan to raise questions about what they called Dourson’s failure to report his financial ties to the chemical industry.

“Unfortunately, this nomination fits the clear pattern of the Trump administration in appointing individuals to positions for which they have significant conflicts of interest,” Richard Denison, senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a blog post.

Former EPA Officials

Former EPA policy official and scientist Tracey Woodruff—now with the University of California-San Francisco—shared Denison’s concern. She worked at EPA from 1997 to 2007 and echoed Sussman’s emphasis on the importance of EPA properly implementing the overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

“Dourson’s documented work with the industry could lead to a literal ‘open for business’ access to EPA decision making about toxic chemicals at a critical time of TSCA implementation,” Woodruff said in an email.

Sussman, who is a consultant to the advocacy group Safer Chemicals-Healthy Families, said the new TSCA “is at a critical stage right now.”

“We need someone at the helm who will provide leadership in addressing chemical risks, despite industry pressures to block action. Dourson’s record raises questions whether he will provide that kind of leadership,” Sussman said.

But William Jordan, who served at the EPA between 1975 and 2016 and retired as the deputy director of pesticide program, cited Dourson’s experience in expressing his support.

“Not only does he bring a lifetime of experience working on human health risk assessment issues, but he is familiar with EPA, serving in the Office of Research & Development, as well as a detail in EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs,” Jordan said in an email.

To contact the reporters on this story: Tiffany Stecker in Washington at tstecker@bna.com; Steve Gibb at sgibb@bna.com

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

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