Health Agency Chief Resigns After Clash With Marines Over Camp Lejeune Problems

Tense email exchanges and a Capitol Hill meeting preceded Tanja Popovic’s sudden and quiet resignation.

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 06: U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd L) signs the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 as (L-R) Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), retired Marine Jerry Ensminger, Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC) and Mike Partain in the Oval Office at the White House August 6, 2012 in Washington, DC. According to the administration, the act helps provide for the needs of veterans and their families with improved health care, housing, education and memorial services. (Photo by WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 06: U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd L) signs the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 as (L-R) Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), retired Marine Jerry Ensminger, Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC) and Mike Partain in the Oval Office at the White House August 6, 2012 in Washington, DC. According to the administration, the act helps provide for the needs of veterans and their families with improved health care, housing, education and memorial services. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images))
National Journal
Mike Magner
March 20, 2014, 9:27 a.m.

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.

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, 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.

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.

Wide­spread dump­ing of mil­it­ary waste at Camp Le­jeune over at least four dec­ades caused drink­ing-wa­ter sup­plies at the sprawl­ing base on the At­lantic Coast to be con­tam­in­ated with tox­ic chem­ic­als from the 1950s un­til 1985, when 10 tain­ted wells were fi­nally shut down. As many as a mil­lion Mar­ines and fam­ily mem­bers, as well as ci­vil­ian em­ploy­ees at the base, could have been ex­posed to the pol­luted wa­ter, and many of them be­lieve ill­nesses and deaths were caused by it.

Con­gress passed a law in 2012 provid­ing health care for Mar­ines and fam­ily mem­bers who have spe­cif­ic ill­nesses that can be linked to the con­tam­in­a­tion, but the Agency for Tox­ic Sub­stances and Dis­ease Re­gistry is still con­duct­ing stud­ies of the pol­lu­tion’s health ef­fects.

One of the stud­ies sought by vic­tims of the con­tam­in­a­tion would at­tempt to de­term­ine in­cid­ences of can­cer among former res­id­ents of Camp Le­jeune. But last month Pop­ovic told law­makers in a meet­ing called to get an up­date on the study that the agency had neither the au­thor­ity nor ex­pert­ise to con­duct a can­cer-in­cid­ence study.

The meet­ing promp­ted Din­gell and the two sen­at­ors from North Car­o­lina, Demo­crat Kay Hagan and Re­pub­lic­an Richard Burr, to write HHS Sec­ret­ary Kath­leen Se­beli­us on March 12 ur­ging that the study be done and also ask­ing that Pop­ovic’s agency work on bet­ter re­la­tions with vic­tims of the Camp Le­jeune con­tam­in­a­tion.

“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.

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