When President Trump first took office and was looking for someone to head the Environmental Protection Agency’s chemical safety division, it didn’t go well.
He nominated Michael Dourson, a University of Cincinnati professor whose research had been used for years by chemical firms and other companies to challenge claims that their products posed a public health risk. After North Carolina’s two Republican senators publicly declared their opposition, and a third Republican suggested she would vote no, Dourson withdrew his name from consideration in December.
Now, Trump is poised to shift course. He plans to nominate a centrist to head the EPA’s Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Office, according to two individuals briefed on the decision who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it is not yet public.
EPA Region 1 Administrator Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, who was appointed to her current post in November, has deep roots working at nonpartisan environmental organizations and academia. Before becoming the agency’s top official for New England, Dunn served as executive director and general counsel for the Environmental Council of States. Before then, she occupied the same role at the Association of Clean Water Administrators, which represents state water officials across the country.
Dunn has taught environmental law at Pace University, where she served as its dean of environmental law programs, and as an adjunct professor at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law and American University’s Washington College of Law.
An EPA spokesman referred questions about Dunn’s nomination to the White House, which declined to comment.
American University law professor Amanda Leiter, who served the Interior Department’s deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals under President Barack Obama, praised Dunn’s environmental expertise in an email.
“She taught environmental justice here and students loved her,” said Leiter, who recruited her to teach at both Catholic University and AU. “She’s a consummate professional with a longstanding commitment to environmental protection and cooperative federalism, and a deep understanding of the importance of sound federal regulation.”
The EPA’s chemical safety office has already attracted scrutiny for how it is implementing a major chemical safety law passed by Congress in 2016, The bipartisan update to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) gives the agency far-reaching authority to prioritize and evaluate existing chemicals in commercial products to make sure they do not pose a health hazard to Americans. It also must evaluate new chemicals to determine any associated health risks.
The agency has said it hopes to complete its evaluation of 10 initial chemicals -- a list that includes asbestos and a range of other compounds -- by next year.
On Wednesday, all 10 members of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on environment wrote a letter to GOP committee leaders demanding a hearing on how EPA was carrying out the law, saying the agency’s current approach “contradicts the new law’s language and intent and undermines public confidence in the program.”
Other decisions concerning pesticides and toxic chemicals, made when Scott Pruitt helmed the agency, now face legal challenges. Pruitt decided last spring that the widely used pesticide chlorpyrifos, which has been linked in studies to neurological developmental problems in children, would be kept on the market. Earlier this month, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled 2 to 1 that federal law requires the agency to ban the use of a pesticide on food if it finds any harm from exposure to it. The ruling gave the EPA 60 days to institute a ban.
Dunn appears unlikely to stir nearly the same level of political resistance as Dourson, whose nomination in July 2017 drew widespread criticism from environmental and public health advocates.
A longtime toxicologist who worked at the EPA from 1980 to 1994, Dourson was closely tied to the chemical industry through a nonprofit consulting group he founded. Over the years, it produced research for chemical companies that consistently showed little or no human health risks from their products.
Critics argued that Dourson, who worked as an EPA adviser while awaiting a Senate vote, had too many conflicts of interest to be considered for an EPA post that would position him to oversee the review of chemicals produced by companies he once represented. In October, a Senate committee narrowly advanced Dourson’s nomination along party lines. But some Senate Republicans began voicing reservations about confirming him to the high-level post.
North Carolina GOP Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis both raised questions about his record, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) also raised concerns. Burr said he was most alarmed about Dourson’s work on a case involving contaminated water at a North Carolina military base and an unregulated compound known as Gen X, used to produce Teflon and other products, that was discovered in the Cape Fear River.
“I am not confident he is the best choice for our country,” Burr said at the time.