Acting Head of Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Resigns after Only 7 Weeks

Saturday, March 22, 2014
Tanja Popovic (photo: CDC)

Tanja Popovic was a career scientist for the federal government before she was given the task of leading the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which investigates health problems arising from harmful chemicals. She lasted seven weeks on the job as acting director until she abruptly resigned, leaving behind a trail of acrimony between her agency and former Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune.


The North Carolina military base has been the scene of an ongoing environmental and legal battle over poisoned drinking wells and the exposure of upwards of a million service members, their families and civilian workers. The problems were caused by widespread dumping of waste over the span of more than 30 years, beginning in 1953 and continuing until 1985, when 10 contaminated wells were closed down.


Illnesses plaguing the base’s Marine families have been linked to the tainted wells and resulted in a 2012 law passed by Congress that provided health care for those individuals. However, as part of the government’s role in handling the Camp Lejeune mess, ATSDR has continued to conduct studies of the pollution’s health effects on those who worked and lived at the base.


One study in particular is trying to determine incidences of cancer among former residents of the Marine base. But Popovic, who took over the agency on January 26, told members of Congress in February that ATSDR lacked the authority and expertise to determine if the toxic well water had caused cancer.


This assertion contradicted what ATSDR’s own scientists said in 2008, that such a study was feasible, according to The Tampa Bay Times. In fact, last month ATSDR released a preliminary mortality study which showed that, from 1975 to 1985, the frequency of cancer deaths of Camp Lejeune veterans was 10% percent greater compared to another military base where the water was not contaminated.

Lawmakers were reportedly taken aback by Popovic’s contradictory claim.


Then, there were the heated communications between Popovic and former Marine Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger, who has led a group advocating for Camp Lejeune victims. His nine-year-old daughter, Janey, died of leukemia in 1985, a loss for which he blames the base’s contaminated drinking water.


Ensminger told Popovic in an email that he questioned her commitment to continue the Camp Lejeune research, saying “You just proved what I have suspected all along.”


The email struck a nerve in Popovic who seemed to think her integrity was being questioned.


“What is it that you have suspected all along?” she asked in her reply. “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?”


She went on, adding: “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 later accused Ensminger and his colleagues of being “disrespectful” and “condescending” and including “offensive content” in their communications to her.


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


Members of Congress grew concerned about Popovic’s handling of the Camp Lejeune issue. A meeting was called that involved staff members of the two senators from North Carolina, Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Richard Burr, as well as Representative John Dingell (D-Michigan), who authored the legislation that established the ATSDR.


That meeting resulted in a letter from Dingell, Hagan and Burr to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who oversees ATSDR’s parent agency, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They insisted the study go forward, and that Popovic’s agency try to smooth things over with the Camp Lejeune victims.


“For reasons we cannot yet discern, the desire for open communication seems to have waned within ATSDR in recent months,” Dingell, Hagan, and Burr wrote to Sebelius.


It was apparent, though, that something had to be done about Popovic, for the very next business day, her resignation was announced in an email to top managers at the CDC.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Health Agency Chief Resigns After Clash With Marines Over Camp Lejeune Problems (by Mike Magner, National Journal)

Chief of Agency Studying Camp Lejeune Health Effects Resigns (by William Levesque, Tampa Bay Times)

Justice Dept. Sides with Polluters in Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Case (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Author of Camp Lejeune Contaminated Water Report Criticizes Military for Censoring Details (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


Insider 4 years ago
ATSDR has been of little to no use for most of its inception as an agency. It lacks policy, program oversite and quality control - has no capability to implement its findings. There are political handcuffs on it's workers- even those who might have good intentions. Only the chickens mind the roast. There is no farmer and if there was one s/he has too many out of control farm hands to get the place in order. It is a gov mess and an ongoing one.
victoria 5 years ago
for 1, if the wells r contaminated with radiation, y in the h is anybody still living there to begin with? and for 2, radiation and cancer have already been repeatedly proven in many past tests, that is a given at this pt. how can this even be a question at this point? wow, what a bunch of lunatics we have running our country, no wonder we're in so much trouble these days. why don't they just hire regular people, like me, who knows how to get things done and people taken care of, and problems solved as economically and advantageously for all as possible. good grief, maybe our over educated star people are like hybrid dogs, dumber than rocks with no sense whatsoever.
Dave 5 years ago
When I resigned from the Community Assistance Panel in 2007, I stated to the assembled panel members, the "Professionals" from ATSDR and the USMC representatives sent in from Washington that they would continue to make studies... with no definate conclusions... and wait for all of us to die off and sweept this under the carpet. Of course, this highly upset many members from ATSDR, whom I am sure are retired by now and drawing their government pensions... and this is the farthest thing from their minds. Well, 7 years later... Same crap, different day. Jerry Ensminger... I salute you to your unending devotion to this cause.

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