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Obama nominates Hopkins professor for EPA post

President Barack Obama has nominated a Johns Hopkins University professor to lead research at the Environmental Protection Agency — an appointment likely to stir controversy among senators concerned about the agency's reach.

Thomas A. Burke, an environmental epidemiologist at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and former New Jersey state official, would serve as an assistant administrator for the EPA's scientific research arm, among the agency's highest-profile divisions.

"He's incredibly thoughtful and enthusiastic," said Maryland Health Secretary Joshua M. Sharfstein, who said that as Baltimore's health commissioner he often relied on Burke's counsel. "He was the person I would call on when there was a challenging environmental health issue."

Despite accolades from colleagues and environmentalists, the nomination of the Towson man is likely to face resistance because some Republicans are skeptical of the EPA.

Burke's predecessor, Paul Anastas, waited months to be confirmed in 2009. The position has been vacant since Anastas' departure in early 2012.

But Burke's confirmation could proceed more smoothly now that Senate Democrats have changed the chamber's rules to require only a 51-vote majority — rather than a 60-vote supermajority — to advance most of the president's nominees.

The EPA's research and development office is at the center of several controversial environmental issues, including a national study of the impact of the natural gas drilling procedure known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

Burke, the associate dean for public health practice and training at Hopkins, declined to comment.

Burke holds joint appointments in the Bloomberg School's department of environmental health sciences and the School of Medicine's department of oncology. He also is director of the Johns Hopkins Risk Sciences and Public Policy Institute.

Burke was previously director of science and research for New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection. He is also a former deputy state health commissioner.

"Tom Burke is exceptionally well qualified," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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