The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday placed Office of Children’s Health Protection Director Dr. Ruth Etzel on administrative leave without explanation in a move critics warn could be part of an effort to shut the office down, an effort that the EPA denies exists.
The New York Times reports that Etzel was placed on leave and asked to hand over her badge, keys and cellphone, according to an EPA official who was familiar with the decision but would not speak publicly.
An EPA spokesman says that the agency does not comment on personnel matters and would not confirm nor deny the reports of Etzel's employment status to The Hill.
The spokesman did however unequivocally deny comments that the agency was shutting down the Office of Children’s Health Protection, which is situated under EPA's Office of the Administrator.
"EPA Headquarters has a number of specialty focused offices including the children’s health, environmental justice, civil rights, and small business offices and these offices will continue to be a part of headquarters and regional organizations," John Konkus, EPA spokesman said in a statement.
"Children’s health is and has always been a top priority for the Trump Administration and the EPA in particular is focused on reducing lead exposure in schools, providing funds for a cleaner school bus fleet, and cleaning up toxic sites so that children have safe environments to learn and play."
The reported administrative change set off fears for some in the health-care industry who have been watching the internal changes at EPA.
The director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Medical Center, a teaching hospital that serviced children affected by the Flint, Mich., lead water crisis, warned the Times that the move could be a "sneaky" way for the Trump administration to shift the EPA's priorities.
“This seems like a sneaky way for the EPA to get rid of this program and not be upfront about it,” Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha told the Times, adding that Etzel is “an international leader in children’s health.”
Other EPA sources told the Times that Etzel's suspension was just the latest move slowing productivity in the EPA's small 15-person Office of Children’s Health Protection, citing a multi-agency study on childhood lead exposure undertaken by the office last year but allegedly stalled by the Trump administration since July.
Last February The Hill broke the news that EPA was merging a federal environmental office that works to test the effects of chemical exposure on adults and children with three other EPA offices. The National Center for Environmental Research was perhaps best known for its handling of fellowships that study the effects of chemicals on children’s health.
The EPA has seen major staff cuts under President TrumpDonald TrumpPence: Supreme Court has chance to right 'historic wrong' with abortion ruling Prosecutor says during trial that actor Jussie Smollett staged 'fake hate crime' Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE. Since he took office, the agency has reportedly lost 8 percent of its total staff, totaling nearly 1,600 workers, in an 18-month period.
EPA Acting Director Andrew Wheeler told The Washington Post earlier this month that his focus is on recruiting talent while not focusing on total staff levels.
“With nearly half of our employees eligible to retire in the next five years, my priority is recruiting and maintaining the right staff, the right people for our mission, rather than total full-time employees,” he said.
-- Updated at 10:53 a.m.