The Unmaking of Tanja Popovic

The acting director of a federal health agency stepped down after terse exchanges with Capitol Hill aides and concerned citizens.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Journal
March 20, 2014, 2:42 p.m.

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.

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