Four locals, including two college professors, are among a group of 56 Tennessee scientists urging lawmakers to oppose President-elect Donald Trump's choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt is scheduled today for a 10 a.m. confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
"If confirmed, Mr. Pruitt may rescind public health standards that are directly beneficial for Tennessee, putting the health of your constituents at increased risk," reads a Jan. 12 letter by the Union of Concerned Scientists and sent to Republican Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander.
Corker and Alexander do not serve on the Environment and Public Works committee and each are heads of other Senate committees with confirmation hearings this week. But the duo will vote on Pruitt's nomination when it goes before the full Senate after the hearing and Trump's Friday inauguration.
Sean Richards, environmental science professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and Richard Clements, Chattanooga State environmental science professor, were among those who signed the letter blasting Pruitt.
"Mr. Pruitt has spent his career challenging and undermining public health protections and critical science-based standards," the letter reads.
"So many years of progress stand to be undermined," Richards said in a phone interview, but he added that he hopes Democrats will seek to work with Pruitt if he does become the EPA administrator.
"You want to give the guy a chance, but on the surface it seems to be a regression," said Richards, an environmental toxicologist who has researched the potential effects of Chattanooga Creek pollution on local residents.
Alexandra Johnson of Chattanooga and Irene Ozbek of Signal Mountain also signed the letter.
Pruitt has fought EPA regulations during Barack Obama's presidency, most recently by leading Oklahoma's involvement in a 28-state lawsuit against the agency over Obama's Clean Power Plan. Critics also point to his relationship with key players in fossil fuel industries as a conflict of interest for service as the EPA's top official.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning 2014 New York Times article revealed a deep collaboration between Pruitt and energy company leaders and lawyers frustrated by what they perceived as overreaching federal guidelines from agencies such as the EPA.
Pruitt said in a December news release he was "deeply grateful" to serve in the role.
"The American people are tired of seeing billions of dollars drained from our economy due to unnecessary EPA regulations, and I intend to run this agency in a way that fosters both responsible protection of the environment and freedom for American businesses," Pruitt said in the release.
Pruitt's nomination has received praise from the American Farm Bureau Federation. The Oklahoma Farm Bureau also lauded Pruitt's nomination, calling his nomination, "a win for farmers and ranchers across the country."
"As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt has been a staunch advocate of agriculture and Oklahoma Farm Bureau," the statement read. "He continuously has defended farmers and ranchers against the EPA and has led the charge in suing the agency over its burdensome regulations such as the Waters of the United States rule and the Clean Power Plan."
The Tennessee Farm Bureau does not make formal endorsements, but the organization's communications director, Lee Maddox, said the organization feels comfortable with what Pruitt brings to the table for farmers in Tennessee.
"We think he's proven that he thinks the EPA has been too excessive in over-regulation on farmers," Maddox said. "In the past few years, there's been too many regulations that farmers have had to deal with. There's no way farmers are trying to do anything other than help the environment, because that's what supports them. Some regulations are necessary, but it's gone too far."
The Union of Concerned Scientists purchased full-page ads in the Sunday editions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press and Knoxville News Sentinel urging Tennesseans to write to Alexander and Corker opposing Pruitt. The letter also touted the opposition of the 56 scientists from around the state.
"Do we really want someone like Scott Pruitt in charge of making sure Tennessee's rivers, lakes and drinking water supplies are safe?" the ad reads.
A blog on the UCS website compared Pruitt's expected role with the agency to a "fox guarding the henhouse."
"It's like going into the Super Bowl and discovering that your quarterback actually plays for the opposing team," wrote Angela Anderson, the group's director of climate and energy.
With Republicans holding a Senate majority, Pruitt appears likely to assume the role, but his confirmation hearings could be contentious given the largely partisan nature of environmental and climate issues and Pruitt's vocal opposition to hallmark Obama policies.
Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., serves on the Environment and Public Works committee that will question Pruitt today. Sanders called Pruitt's nomination "sad and dangerous" in a December statement.
"The American people must demand leaders who are willing to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels," Sanders said. "I will vigorously oppose this nomination."
The committee is comprised of 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats. It will vote to report Pruitt's nomination favorably, unfavorably or without recommendation to the full Senate. Pruitt's hearing will be broadcast live on C-SPAN3.
"Attorney General Pruitt's confirmation hearing will be an opportunity to hear his vision for the agency," the committee's chairman, John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said in a news release. "It will give senators the chance to ask questions and to hear Mr. Pruitt's plans on how to help the EPA meet its mission of protecting the environment while strengthening the economy."
Richards, the UTC professor, said Pruitt's nomination is "disturbing" because of his track record but emphasized that he is hoping for the best.
"I hope, if he's confirmed," Richards said, "that he will realize the gravity of the situation and realize how important it is to leave a healthy environment for our kids and grandkids."
Contact staff writer David Cobb at email@example.com or 423-757-6249.
This story was updated Jan. 17 at 8:30 p.m.