Washington — The Trump administration's nominee to head chemicals regulation at the Environmental Protection Agency came under sharp criticism Oct. 4 at a Senate hearing. Democrats suggested that his close work with industry, including in fluoropolymers and flame retardants, disqualified him from the job.
Democrats on the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee said Michael Dourson, a former EPA employee who became a prominent chemical health consultant, had much deeper ties to industry than other nominees and too often pushed for weak chemical health standards.
But Republicans on the panel disputed that, saying that Dourson would help restore balance to an EPA that they said had become too politicized under President Obama and made decisions without properly weighing science.
Dourson's work on perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, a byproduct of fluoropolymers, was one issue at the Washington hearing to examine whether the Senate would approve his nomination.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) noted people in the hearing room who came from two New York towns that have had their drinking water made unsafe because of PFOA contamination from fluoropolymer processing plants.
“Mr. Dourson, today in the audience are New Yorkers whose lives have been personally impacted by the chemical PFOA,” she said. “They live in the village of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., and the town of Petersburgh N.Y., two neighboring communities that together are going through a gut-wrenching experience of discovering that their drinking water... is contaminated by PFOA.”
She said people in those communities have died from cancer and been affected by illnesses “that are known to be linked to PFOA.”
Gillibrand questioned Dourson's work on a scientific panel that set a safe level of PFOA in 2004 at 150 parts per billion, when she noted that current EPA levels are less than one part per billion.
Dourson said that 10-member panel he sat on, which included three EPA staff and two other government employees, set the 150-ppb level based on the best science at the time.
“The science has progressed and significantly advanced since the time of 2004 and the new science indicates a lower level,” he said.
PFOA groundwater contamination remains an issue for communities around the country, and one that impacts fluoropolymer processing companies.
Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics agreed in July, for example, to pay $20 million to fund a water line extension in Bennington, Vt., to address PFOA concerns.
Flame retardants were another issue at the hearing.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said Dourson should recuse himself from any EPA decisions on flame retardants, because from 2012 until earlier this year, Dourson sat on a scientific advisory panel for the North American Flame Retardant Alliance, and did research work for companies in that industry.
NAFRA is part of the American Chemistry Council.
“Having taken this employment and this advocacy, it's simply hard to conclude how you can be an objective and impartial regulator to these flame retardants,” Merkley said.
But Dourson countered that the consulting firm he founded, Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment, also did work on flame retardants for government agencies, including the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and Health Canada.
Dourson said he would follow EPA's ethics rules for determining if he should recuse himself from specific regulatory proceedings.
Flame retardant regulation is currently before other agencies, with CPSC voting in September to limit their use in plastics and other materials. That decision was sharply criticized by NAFRA.
Democrats on the committee were concerned that Dourson would not properly implement landmark chemical safety legislation, the reforms to the Toxic Substances Control Act, that passed the Congress by broad bipartisan margins in 2016.
“Regrettably I'm concerned that Dr. Dourson is not the leader we need for that job,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). “Never in the history of the EPA has a nominee to lead the chemical safety office had such deep ties to industry.”
In the frequently contentious hearing, some Republicans in their questioning of Dourson said that the EPA under President Obama did not follow good science in its rulemaking, and asked about his planned approach.
“For the past eight years the EPA has acted as a political arm of the Obama administration,” said Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.). “Time and time again we have seen rules developed not based on sound science but based on political ideology.”
Other Republicans on the panel, including Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, said the Obama administration's EPA sometimes acted not on a scientific assessment of risk, but on “a precautionary approach, where a regulatory action was taken to prevent theoretical risks, unproven risks.”
Without getting specific, Dourson suggested there have been some instances in pesticide regulation where the approach was overly precautionary.
“There have been tendencies in certain cases to be additionally precautionary, more protective than needed,” he said.
While Democrats repeatedly held up posters with lists of chemicals where they said Dourson was paid by industry and recommended looser safety standards, he said the teams he worked with at times recommended tougher chemical safety standards.
“I could give you as many or more examples of situations where the science we bought forward as a team actually lowered the safe dose or risk position for various sponsors,” Dourson said.