Op-Ed

Military service members and families deserve better than Michael Dourson

President Barack Obama signs the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 on Monday, Aug. 6, 2012, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington. From left are, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., Jerry Ensminger, former Master Sergeant, USMC, who served at Camp Lejeune and advocated on behalf of affected veterans and families, and Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C. Ensminger blames contaminated water at Camp Lejeune for the leukemia that killed his 9-year-old daughter.
President Barack Obama signs the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 on Monday, Aug. 6, 2012, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington. From left are, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., Jerry Ensminger, former Master Sergeant, USMC, who served at Camp Lejeune and advocated on behalf of affected veterans and families, and Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C. Ensminger blames contaminated water at Camp Lejeune for the leukemia that killed his 9-year-old daughter. AP

I was serving at Camp Lejeune when doctors discovered my 6-year-old daughter Janey had leukemia. More than a decade after her death and three years after I retired from the Marines, I finally learned the likely cause: massive amounts of toxic chemicals in our drinking water.

It turned out that the drinking water at Camp Lejeune was highly contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (PCE), vinyl chloride, benzene and scores of other toxic chemicals. Camp Lejeune is one of roughly 400 military bases that might also be contaminated. So far, 149 current and former bases have already been designated as toxic “Superfund” sites.

Now, the Senate is poised to place Michael Dourson, the “hired gun” of chemical lobbying, in charge of reviewing toxic chemicals for the Environmental Protection Agency, including TCE. In fact, TCE would be one of the first chemicals Dourson would review if he is confirmed by the Senate later this year.

While Dourson is a toxicologist who calls himself a “doctor,” he might be better described as a “spin doctor” or a “scientific hired gun.” For the last two decades, Dourson has been paid by chemical companies like Monsanto and Dow to argue for weaker chemical safety standards. He has mastered the art of twisting the science to serve his corporate clients. Internal company emails characterized Dourson as a scientist who was in the business of “blessing” industry’s proposals.

In fact, he’s even argued for a weaker safety standard for TCE, which is known to cause cancer. Dourson was paid by the American Chemistry Council, a trade association representing big chemical companies, to argue for a safety standard that was 5 times weaker than the safety standard proposed by the EPA and that was 15 times weaker than the safety standard proposed by state regulators in California.

TCE was not the only chemical “reviewed” by Dourson that threatens service members and their families. Dourson was also paid by chemical companies to argue for weaker standards for perchlorate, PFOA and 1,4-Dioxane, chemicals that routinely contaminate military bases. Dourson argued for a standard for PFOA, also linked to cancer, that was 150 times weaker than the safety standard proposed by the manufacturer, Dupont. PFOA has contaminated military bases from Brunswick Air Force Base in Maine to Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska and many sites in between. After chemical companies paid Dourson to review 1,4-Dioxane, he argued for a safety standard that was 1,000 times weaker than the standard proposed by EPA. These chemicals not only threaten service members. For some North Carolina residents, 1,4-Dioxane levels are well above the levels recommended by the EPA.

There’s never a good time to put chemical safety reviews in the hands of someone who has been paid by industry to understate the risks posed by toxic chemicals. But this is an especially bad time. Just last year, Congress updated the nation’s primary chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, to finally regulate chemicals like TCE. Putting Michael Dourson in charge of implementing this new law for the EPA would be like putting an arsonist in charge of the fire department, a walking, talking example of conflict of interest.

Our legislators in North Carolina have worked hard to right the wrongs caused by toxic chemical pollution at Camp Lejeune by introducing and enacting the “Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans and Families Act,” or the “Janey Ensminger Act,” which makes it easier for military families poisoned by Camp Lejeune pollution to get health care. By contrast, voting to put Michael Dourson in charge of reviewing the same chemicals that poisoned children like Janey would be a slap in the face of all the military families who have lost loved ones to this environmental disaster.

When the cameras are rolling, our elected leaders in Washington love to say they’ll do anything (within reason) to keep our soldiers, sailors and Marines safe. I say “within reason” because we all understood when we raised our right hands and signed on the dotted line that our very lives could be in jeopardy to protect our nation. Do our U.S. Senators think that poisoning our military members and our children is “within reason?”

When any industry that threatens the health and safety of Americans is permitted to control the regulations meant to curb the problems they’ve created, we are in deep trouble.

Jerry Ensminger is a retired Marine master sergeant.

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