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
Mike Magner
Add to Briefcase
Mike Magner
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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