Chilly relations with members of Congress and their constituents have been the downfall of many in government. And they certainly didn’t help Tanja Popovic, whose 25 years of experience in the federal government and long list of scientific accomplishments weren’t enough to prevent her resignation this week.
Popovic, 57, abruptly resigned Monday, less than two months after being named acting director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the federal Centers for Disease Control that investigates health problems caused by toxic-waste sites.
Reached this week at her home in Stone Mountain, Ga., Popovic declined to comment on her resignation, and a CDC spokeswoman declined to discuss it.
Popovic’s departure from CDC headquarters in Atlanta followed a brief but tumultuous tenure that put her on the defensive with lawmakers and their aides on Capitol Hill, with other members of the scientific community, and with former Marines who believe they and their families were harmed by poisoned water at Camp Lejeune. The base is a massive facility in North Carolina where as many as a million people were exposed to toxic chemicals over several decades ending in 1985.
Shortly after taking charge at the agency on Jan. 26, Popovic burst onto the national scene by heading to West Virginia to consult with local and state officials dealing with a chemical spill that shut down water supplies in nine counties. After telling reporters at a Feb. 6 news conference that people could drink the water, bathe in it, and cook with it, Popovic waffled in an interview with the Charleston Daily Mail.
“We’re not really talking about if the water is safe, we’re talking about is the water appropriate for use, given the information we know about [the contamination],” Popovic said. “We do not use the term safe “¦ because that does not well describe what we can do with the information that we have.”
The newspaper was also critical of her response on another question. “Popovic didn’t give a straight answer as to whether pregnant women should drink it,” the Daily Mail reported.
Popovic later got involved in one of the biggest controversies at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: how much harm was done to people who used tainted drinking water at Camp Lejeune. The agency has been researching the problems since the base was declared a federal Superfund site in 1989, and it still has not completed several studies sought by Congress and victims of the contamination.
In a February meeting with several lawmakers concerned about Camp Lejeune, Popovic said her agency might scrap a study of cancer cases among former base residents because it was neither authorized nor equipped to conduct it. That led both senators from North Carolina, Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Richard Burr, and Rep. John Dingell, the author of the federal Superfund law, to write a strong letter of protest to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who oversees the CDC and the ATSDR.
“We remain significantly concerned about many aspects of ATSDR’s ongoing work on this very serious matter,” Hagan, Burr, and Dingell wrote on March 12.
Popovic went on to make an issue out of the makeup of a Community Assistance Panel established in 2005 to give victims of the Camp Lejeune contamination greater input on ATSDR studies.
She told the most senior member of the panel, former Marine Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger — whose daughter died of leukemia in 1985, nine years after being conceived at Camp Lejeune — that one of the nominees for a vacant seat would not be accepted if “disrespectful communications with me and my staff continue.”
The result was a tense exchange of emails between Popovic and Ensminger. After Popovic forwarded an email from a Senate staffer without the staffer’s permission, Ensminger questioned her professionalism.
“I find it rather disturbing that you find it ethical to share emails you had with a staff member of a U.S. Senator who was working at the behest of his elected member for his constituents,” he told Popovic. “You just proved what I have suspected all along….”
Popovic gave a lengthy reply:
“What is it that you have suspected all along? That I have been recognized as a Fulbright Fellow, that I have been the lead laboratory expert for CDC 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 US President, a Senate Majority Leader, numerous Senators and Representatives? Or that a US 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?”
After the emails made their way to Capitol Hill, aides to Hagan, Burr, and Dingell asked for a meeting last Friday with congressional liaisons for HHS, the CDC, and the ATSDR.
On the next business day, Popovic’s resignation was quietly announced in an email to top managers of the CDC.