EPA makes changes at research, child health offices

(CNN)Back-to-back moves at the Environmental Protection Agency have employees and some outside observers concerned that science is again being sidelined by the Trump administration.

EPA officials gathered employees from the research office on Wednesday to announce the agency would soon combine the Office of the Science Advisor with the agency's research arm, according to an employee who attended the meeting. An EPA spokesman confirmed the meeting took place and said the move would "reduce redundancies."
The previous afternoon, EPA's director of children's health emailed her professional circle with a message several people who had seen it found shocking. Ruth Etzel said that without warning, she had been placed on administrative leave, a decision she wrote in an email obtained by CNN was intended to undermine her office's work. The office's responsibilities include working with other EPA offices to make sure children are taken into account when regulations are written.
The agency's second-ranking official defended the decision in a separate email, also obtained by CNN, and said the administration "remains fully committed to protecting children's health."
    "I would like to clear up any misunderstandings regarding EPA's ongoing commitment to the protection of children's health," the acting deputy administrator, Henry Darwin, wrote in a separate email on Thursday to members of the agency's Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee. "Dr. Etzel was not placed on leave to diminish EPA's Children's Health Program. ... EPA is seeking a strong leader to move the program forward."
    Etzel, however, described being pushed out of her position after months of "guerilla warfare," describing in her message how she "was required to turn in my EPA badge, computer, keys, and cell phone" and is "not allowed to perform any official EPA duties."
    "I appear to be the 'fall guy' for their plan to 'disappear' the office of children's health," Etzel wrote. "They said clearly that this is not a disciplinary action -- so it looks to me like it is intended to cause chaos in the Office of Children's Health Protection."
    She is a career agency employee, rather than a political appointee, who previously worked as a pediatrician and was described by people who know her as a vocal and influential advocate within the agency for childrens' health. Her office was involved in crafting the agency's most important regulations, and its objections taken seriously, according to her professional acquaintances who spoke with CNN.
    Tracey Woodruff, a professor at the University of California San Francisco, said the colleagues she speaks with "really valued having Ruth in that job," and are now "concerned about what does this mean for children's health at EPA."
    "I never heard of putting an office level director -- a senior executive -- on administrative leave," said Betsy Southerland, a former senior EPA official herself who resigned in protest of the Trump administration's approach to science.
    EPA spokesman John Konkus said the work of the "specialty focused offices including the children's health, environmental justice, civil rights, and small business offices" will continue.
    The agency's decision to fold the science advisor office into the Office of Research and Development also concerned EPA employees, according to an EPA staffer who attended the meeting, and pro-science groups. An EPA official confirmed the meeting took place and said the two offices perform "similar functions."
    "The fact of the matter is that the Senate confirmed Assistant Administrator for ORD has customarily served as the EPA Science Advisor which will continue to be the case," said Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, using the acronym for the research office. Orme-Zavaleta is the current acting as the science advisor.
    Michael Halpern with the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has opposed other Trump administration moves, said combining the offices would bury a once-influential position "deep inside one specific part of EPA."
      In past administrations, the science advisor has been an influential voice to "ensure that EPA is using the best available science in policies, guidance, regulations, and basically, all decisions," said Kyla Bennett of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. She said the decision will ensure "that science is once again demoted and marginalized."
      Michael Mikulka, president of a union representing more than 900 EPA employees, said the two moves are among several intended to "kill career civil servants' input and scientific perspectives on rule making."