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KUOW's environment beat brings you stories on the ongoing cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, alternative energy, the health of the Puget Sound, coal transportation and more. We're also partnered with several stations across the Northwest to bring you environmental news via EarthFix.

Longtime EPA foe now the boss. Ex-staffers in Seattle predict chaos.

KUOW Photo / John Ryan
Former EPA Region 10 administrator Dennis McLerran by Lake Washington in Seattle

The U.S. Senate confirmed Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to be the head of the Environmental Protection Agency on Friday, a decision that dismayed many current and former staff of the agency.

Pruitt has a long record of suing to overturn the regulations of the agency he now leads. He also disputes the science that humans are the main cause of climate change. Last year, he called climate change "a religious belief" on an Oklahoma talk-radio show.

Senate Democrats, environmental groups and even EPA staffers opposed Pruitt's nomination and the new direction he represents.

Dennis McLerran was the regional head of the EPA for Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington until Jan. 19.

"From the rhetoric of the president on down to what's being said in the confirmation hearings, there may be a radical shift that they have in mind, and I think that would be not in the best interest of the country and will be sternly fought by many people,” McLerran said shortly before Pruitt's confirmation.

One big shift that's already in place: President Trump's executive order requiring two regulations be eliminated for every new one put in place.

McLerran called that order "rather naive."

He said it could lead to chaos, since the EPA is required to issue regulations based on science, not on arbitrary ratios. McLerran also said removing regulations can be as complicated as creating new ones, so the new order could cause the gears of many government agencies to grind to a halt.

He said he it would not be quick or easy for the EPA to overturn actions the agency took in the closing months of the Obama administration. Those include approving a state ban on sewage dumping from boats in Puget Sound and Seattle's Lake Washington and Lake Union and ordering a billion-dollar cleanup of toxic waste from the Willamette River in Portland.

"An ideologically driven environmental agenda is far, far worse than one that's science driven," McLerran said, "and we've tried over the 40-plus years of EPA to really be structuring everything we do on on sound science."

Nearly 800 former EPA employees wroteto the U.S. Senate earlier this week to oppose Pruitt's nomination. They wrote that Pruitt showed no interest in enforcing environmental laws during his tenure as Oklahoma's attorney general. Instead, they wrote, "Mr. Pruitt has gone to disturbing lengths to advance the views and interests of business."

"It's a pretty strong feeling among EPA people," letter-signer Charles Findley of Seattle said. He worked for the EPA from 1970, shortly after it was signed into law by President Richard Nixon, until retiring in 2009 during the George W. Bush administration.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt at his Senate confirmation hearing", "fid": "132943", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201701/ScottPruittConfirmCSPAN.jpg", "attribution": "Credit C-SPAN"}]]"We’ve had really good [EPA] administrators in Republican administrations and in Democratic administrations," Findley said.

He said EPA traditionally has been an apolitical agency.

"It looks political but it isn’t really," he said. "Most decisions are based on science. That’s the way things are done."

He said that's likely to change. "I don’t see good things ahead for the environment for the next four years."

A press release issued by EPA after the confirmation quoted manufacturing, farming and fossil-fuel lobbies and Republican legislators praising Pruitt. "In Oklahoma, Mr. Pruitt tirelessly fought unwarranted regulations and federal government abuse," the release quoted Rep. David McKinley (R-West Virginia) as saying. "I am confident he will bring a pragmatic and balanced approach to the EPA by returning it to its original and lawful mission.”

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Year started with KUOW: 2009