EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Omitted from New Organizational Chart
In September 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a new organizational chart, which omitted the Office of Children’s Health Protection (OCHP). Established in May 1997, OCHP’s mission is to “make environmental health protection of children a fundamental goal of public health and environmental protection,” and to ensure that “all EPA actions and programs address the unique vulnerabilities of children.” OCHP has historically been located within the Office of the EPA Administrator and had divisions within each EPA regional office. It was, however, omitted from an EPA chart titled “Organization for EPA’s Regional Offices.” The omission has led to concerns that EPA plans to close OCHP.
Shortly after publishing the chart, OCHP’s Director, Dr. Ruth Etzel, was placed on administrative leave. According to her EPA biography, Dr. Etzel is a pediatrician and epidemiologist, with over 30 years experience working “to protect children from hazards in the environment.” EPA officials did not explain why she was placed on leave, but one reportedly indicated that she was not facing disciplinary action, and would continue to receive pay and benefits. Emails written by Dr. Etzel indicate that she believes EPA leaders are attempting to “cause chaos” in OCHP. Dr. Etzel wrote:
“I appear to be the ‘fall guy’ for their plan to ‘disappear’ the office of children’s health.”
She also complained that:
“It had been apparent for about 5 months that the top EPA leaders were conducting ‘guerrilla warfare’ against me as the leader of OCHP, but now it’s clearly official.”
On September 28, 2018, EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson indicated that Dr. Etzel had been placed on leave while the agency reviews “allegations” about her leadership. He said:
“Although EPA does not customarily comment on personnel matters, due to circulating misinformation, the Director of EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection was placed on leave to give the Agency the opportunity to review allegations about the Director’s leadership of the office.”
E&E News reported that “[s]everal current and former EPA employees could not detail those allegations when contacted.” The report quoted one former employee as saying that EPA leaders were concerned “about Etzel’s management when Gina McCarthy served as administrator.”
On October 1, 2018, Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler rejected suggestions that OCHP was slated for closure, saying “nothing could be further from the truth.”
On October 3, 2018, EPA issued an updated organizational chart which included OCHP. A spokesperson for EPA indicated that OCHP was not included on the previous chart because it was intended as “a high level view of the proposed organization.” The October version was “a more detailed chart that included incorporating multimedia programs such as Environmental Education, and Children’s Health and the geographical programs into the proposed organization.”
On October 15, 2018, CBS News published an interview with Dr. Etzel in which she complained that OCHP’s key “message that children are not little adults and they need special need special protections is [no longer] welcome” at EPA. Dr. Etzel reported that, during the Obama administration, she had monthly meetings with the EPA administrator to discuss children’s health issues. Those meetings stopped when President Trump took office. Since that time, she has had no “one-on-one meetings” with either Scott Pruitt, or Andrew Wheeler.
On October 18, 2018, E&E News reported that reported that requests from Dr. Etzel to meet with Acting Administrator Wheeler “went unanswered.” According to the report, Dr. Etzel “requested to meet with Wheeler every week throughout August and September to discuss the federal lead strategy that EPA is drafting with public health agencies, but she was unable to meet with the administrator.”