By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former and current employees of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expressed opposition to President Donald Trump's pick to run the agency on Monday - in an open letter and a small street protest - reflecting divisions over the new administration's plans to slash regulation.
Over 400 former EPA staff members sent a letter to the U.S. Senate asking it to reject the nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as the agency's new leader, saying "he has shown no interest in enforcing environmental laws."
In Chicago, around 30 employees of the EPA's regional office there joined a protest organized by the Sierra Club environmental group and the American Federation of Government Employees to protest Pruitt's nomination.
Doug Eriksen, a spokesman for Trump's transition team at the EPA, downplayed the Chicago protest, saying "employees have a right to take action on their private time."
Trump has vowed to cut regulation to revive the oil, gas and coal industries, and has said he can do so without compromising air and water quality. He nominated Pruitt, who has sued the EPA more than a dozen times as Oklahoma's top prosecutor to block its regulations, to run the agency, sparking alarm among Democrats and environmentalists.
Last Thursday, the Senate environment committee approved Pruitt despite a boycott of his nomination by the panel's Democratic members. He is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate, in Republican control after last November's election, but a date for the vote has not been set.
The former EPA employees who sent the letter to the Senate wrote that they believed Pruitt has a history of siding with industry and has been reluctant to accept "the strong scientific consensus on climate change."
Employees at the Chicago rally raised concerns that Pruitt may cut employees and resources needed for the agency to enforce environmental regulations.
"The EPA needs to be able to enforce the rules when companies are breaking the law," said Sherry Estes, an EPA lawyer who participated in the protest.
(Additional reporting by Robert Chiarito in Chicago; Editing by Dan Grebler)