EPA whistleblower testifies her advocacy for stronger health protections drew agency retaliation

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Children’s health expert Ruth Etzel on Monday testified in a public hearing that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) worked to silence and harass her, removing her from a top-level position after she complained about agency delays in advancing a lead poisoning prevention program.

In testimony before Merit Systems Protection Board Judge Joel Alexander, Etzel described being shocked to learn she was being placed on leave without pay in September 2018 and the “vindictive” “cat and mouse games” she alleged EPA officials used to block her from scheduled national and international speaking engagements.

She also testified that the agency issued public statements designed to discredit and intimidate her.

“They appeared to be just trying to smear my good name,” she testified.

Etzel is a pediatrician and epidemiologist who was brought into the EPA in 2015 by the Obama administration to direct the agency’s Office of Children’s Health Protection (OCHP). Etzel previously worked as a senior officer in the department of public health and environment at the World Health Organization in Switzerland and also previously worked for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and on public health matters within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The agency actions against her occurred during the Trump administration and allegedly followed an aggressive push by Etzel to launch a federal action plan aimed at reducing childhood exposures to lead.

According to her whistleblower complaint, Etzel spoke out about “gross mismanagement and a substantial and specific danger to public health” from childhood lead poisoning, and tried to promote the release of a new federal strategy even after EPA leadership delayed the plan’s final review. In response, “EPA placed Dr. Etzel on administrative leave without warning,” fabricated complaints about her leadership and obstructed her ability to travel to attend and speak at professional conferences, Etzel alleges.

Separate from Etzel’s allegations, four EPA scientists have recently come forward with allegations that the agency is putting corporate interests ahead of public health protection, allowing dangerous chemicals into the marketplace. The whistleblowers allege the EPA routinely uses intimidation tactics to coerce agency scientists into ignoring data showing risks of harm with certain chemicals, and/or altering assessments to downplay such risks.

Etzel and the other EPA whistleblowers are represented by lawyers at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

“Opportunity to strike”

Multiple internal EPA emails and other records were introduced on Monday as evidence, including an email in which EPA public affairs personnel discussed “an opportunity to strike ” out against Etzel in communications to the media.

In a September 28, 2018 email, former EPA deputy associate administrator in the office of public affairs John Konkus wrote to colleagues about inquiries from members of the press about Etzel’s being placed on leave.

“This is our opportunity to strike,” Konkus wrote. (Konkus is no longer with the EPA; he now works as a senior manager for “government affairs” with AECOM, a consulting firm on infrastructure engineering and construction matters.)

“I felt like this was a direct strike on me and it caused me to have fear in my heart,” Etzel testified.

In an email thread with the subject line “Push this around ASAP please,” public affairs officials discussed a “stronger updated” statement about Etzel to state that she was placed on administrative leave because of “serious reports made against her by staff … ” that were “very concerning.”

After being put on leave, Etzel went on multiple television shows to talk about the agency actions. In testimony Monday she said she felt she had no other choice.

“I had been completely silenced by being placed on administrative leave and I was not able to do the job that I was hired to do. I had no other venue,” Etzel testified.”I basically took an oath when I became a doctor to do no harm and by being silent when hazards continue in the environment unabated I do harm, and so I’m not willing to do that. I had to speak out.”

Etzel said the lead plan that was ultimately rolled out after she was placed on leave was “weaker” than the one she helped design and lacked new regulations and requirements needed for the strategy to be effective.

Former EPA official testifies

The first witness called Monday to testify on behalf of Etzel was former EPA official Reginald Allen, who served in several positions at the agency, including as Acting Deputy Chief of Staff.

Allen testified that during the Trump administration, Millan Hupp, a political appointee close to then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, “absolutely” engaged – along with Pruitt – in unethical behavior, and was at least partly instrumental in working to push out certain EPA personnel. Pruitt, who was appointed by Trump to run the EPA, was pushed out in July of 2018 amid evidence of multiple ethical violations.

Allen further testified that Helena Wooden-Aguilar, who was acting deputy chief of staff at the time and who was directly involved in removing Etzel, was close to Hupp and was given that position “with an agenda and that agenda included pushing aside or getting rid of the career senior executives that the political administration did not feel comfortable with or felt did not do their bidding in a way that they wanted.”

Under questioning, Allen added: “I believe it was to remove what they felt were politically unreliable career leadership in the agency… so they wouldn’t be privy to some of the things that went on in the office of the administrator.”

Wooden-Aguilar is scheduled to testify on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Allen said that when he raised concerns about ethical matters within the EPA “it was just not appreciated” and “marked” him within the agency.Allen said at one point he was falsely accused of leaking sensitive agency information to the media.

“There was even an article planted about me from the administration in the conservative press saying that I was leaking information,” Allen said.”They later determined that it was one of their own… political folks that was doing that. But the damage was already done.”

EPA defense

One witness called Monday afternoon, “leadership consultant” Catherine Allen, appeared to bolster the EPA’s position that there was no improper retaliation against Etzel and her removal from the children’s health office was due to poor leadership and complaints about her management of that office.

The EPA asserts there were many complaints about Etzel’s management, including allegations from employees that she “failed to follow agency HR policy,” was emotional and would “bully” co-workers.

Allen testified that she determined Etzel had poor management abilities and “had lost the respect, the trust, the confidence” of those she managed.

Allen confirmed her findings in a report that stated: “It is my view that Ms. Etzel cannot effectively perform her duties… the longer she is allowed to stay in this role the more the agency is exposed to legal and operational risk. The staff deserve better.”

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