Sustained Outrage

CDC’s face in W.Va. water crisis resigns

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Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

Readers who followed the continuing water crisis in West Virginia may remember the face of the federal official standing at Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s podium in the photo above. Or maybe we should say the former federal official — because Dr. Tanja Popovic has apparently resigned her post as director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health.

And the stories about her resignation are certainly interesting … here’s one from The National Journal:

The head of a federal agency that investigates health problems linked to toxic-waste sites has stepped down after a clash with former Marines who believe their families were harmed by poisoned drinking water at Camp Lejeune.

Tanja Popovic’s sudden resignation followed a tumultuous seven weeks as acting director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during which she assured West Virginia residents that their water was safe to drink after a toxic chemical spill in January, questioned the need for a study of cancers that may be linked to Camp Lejeune’s tainted water, and sent scolding emails to aides of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The story continues:

Popovic also had some tense email exchanges with the leader of a group advocating for victims of Camp Lejeune’s contamination, former Marine Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, in which she accused Ensminger and his colleagues of sending messages that contained “disrespectful, condescending, and even offensive content.”

“I take attacks on my professional and personal integrity very seriously,” Popovic wrote to Ensminger on March 12, “and I am profoundly saddened to see that you will stop at nothing.”

The friction culminated in a meeting on Capitol Hill last week between staff of lawmakers concerned about Popovic’s handling of Camp Lejeune issues and congressional liaisons for Popovic’s division, the CDC, and the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees both agencies. That meeting included aides to the two senators from North Carolina, where Camp Lejeune is located, as well as Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., author of the federal law that established the agency Popovic ran.

The next business day, Popovic’s resignation was announced in an email to top managers at the CDC, headquartered in Atlanta.

And then there’s this part of the story, which will sound familiar to West Virginians who recall how hard it was to get the CDC to talk about what was going on in West Virginia back in early January:

A spokeswoman for the CDC, Bernadette Burden, said she could only confirm that Popovic’s tenure as acting director of the agency began on Jan. 26 and ended Monday. “It’s a personnel matter,” Burden said, so no information about the resignation would be discussed.

Reached at her home in Stone Mountain, Ga., the scientist who worked for the federal government for 25 years declined to comment. “I would not like to make any comments, thank you,” Popovic said before hanging up.

Readers will recall that Dr. Popovic came to West Virginia, along with officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to try to help Gov. Tomblin calm the public, and convince skeptical residents that their tap water was again safe to drink after the leak of MCHM from that Freedom Industries tank farm along the Elk River. And of course, state and local public health officials have been pointing to the CDC as the agency that should — and is — helping them do some analysis of the potential public health impacts of the spill.

But West Virginians will be certainly interested in this part of the Popovic story, reported by the Tampa Bay Times:

… Her resignation comes after she told Congress on Feb. 26 that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry lacked the authority and resources to launch a study into the incidence of cancer among veterans of the North Carolina base.

The Tampa Bay Times reported earlier this month that ATSDR’s own scientists said in a 2008 report that such a study was, in fact, feasible.

Up to 1 million people, including about 20,000 Floridians, were exposed to cancer-causing chemicals in the base’s drinking water from 1953 to 1987. Congress has dubbed victims “Poisoned Patriots.”

Popovic’s assertion that ATSDR did not have authority to do the cancer-incidence study drew sharp criticism from some members of Congress, who noted the agency was created for the purpose of doing such research.

Then there was this, also from the Tampa Bay paper:

Popovic’s resignation also came after she threatened to cut off communication with members of a citizens panel advising the agency on Camp Lejeune issues.

Popovic said the members were rude to her.

“I am kindly asking you again to please engage in a respectful manner of communications with me and my colleagues — that is, please state your issue and refrain from making unnecessary offensive comments about my agency,” Popovic said in a recent email to retired Marine drill instructor Jerry Ensminger, a member of the citizens panel.

“Please note,” she said, “that we will no longer be responding to any of the emails that contains disrespectful, condescending, and even offensive content.”

Ensminger’s 9-year-old daughter, Janey, died of leukemia in 1985, a death he believes is linked to Lejeune’s contaminated drinking water.

Ensminger recently told Popovic he distrusted her commitment to continued Camp Lejeune research. He ended one email to her, “You just proved what I have suspected all along,”

That prompted a bristling return volley from Popovic.

“What is it that you have suspected all along?” she asked. “That I have been recognized as a Fulbright Fellow, that I have been the lead laboratory expert for (the Centers for Disease Control) during the anthrax attacks with enormous trust placed on me during that trying time by the people of this country? That I am a member of 2 National Academies of Science with over 150 peer reviewed scientific publications? That I was trusted enough to chair the US Strategic National Stockpile Committee?

“That I was trusted enough to serve on the President’s Committee for Scientific Integrity? That I am recognized for my professional and scientific integrity at home and abroad? Or that I have received praise for my work directly from a U.S .President, a Senate Majority Leader, numerous senators and representatives? Or that a U.S. flag has been flown over the Capitol in recognition of my contributions to protect the country during 9/11 and anthrax attacks? What is it that you have suspected all along?”

Popovic wrote, “I take attacks on my professional and personal integrity very seriously, and I am profoundly saddened to see that you will stop at nothing.”

For those not familiar with the Camp Lejeune story, here’s some background from a McClatchy Newspapers story published by Stars and Stripes:

For 30 years, thousands of Marines and their family members at Camp Lejeune, N.C., drank, cooked with and bathed in water that was laced with dangerous chemicals, but when outside contractors began raising questions about the toxic water, documents show, base officials rebuffed them and ignored the warnings or ordered more tests.

The worst-offending wells finally were shut down in November 1984, more than four years after the first warnings. In that time, more than 2,500 babies may have been carried in utero on the base or born at Camp Lejeune hospital, according to estimates by federal scientists.

Strung together, thousands of pages of documents tell the story of how the contamination was allowed to continue. They show that Camp Lejeune officials had been told consistently that something very foul flowed through the base’s pipes.