Career turned chemist into environmentalist

Merley McCall is a throwback to a time when employees worked for the same company their entire careers, professional ballplayers stayed with one team and people bought a home and stayed put.

Until his retirement less than a month ago, McCall, 70, a Lacey resident, had worked on water pollution problems for the state Department of Ecology since the agency’s inception in 1970, something only three other current Ecology employees can claim.

Heck, he started work in 1963 with the Washington State Pollution Control Commission, which predates the Ecology Department and made him the employee with the longest string of continuous service between the two agencies.

He graduated from North Thurston High School in 1958, eight years before I did, earned his chemistry degree from the University of Puget Sound in 1963, then went to work for the pollution commission on a Puget Sound water quality study, the first of three major initiatives to clean up Puget Sound in the past 50 years.

His career in the environmental field got started before there was an environmental movement, before people tossed the words “environmentalist” and “ecology” around without batting an eyelash.

His first assignment in 1963 as a laboratory technician was studying pollution from pulp and paper mills in Bellingham Bay.

“When I first started, you could smell a pulp and paper mill town 30 miles away,” McCall said. “Today, we’ve probably reduced the pollution from pulp and paper mills by 90 percent.”

It was the year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the step of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Beatlemania was in full swing as teens screamed for them to play “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Lava lamps were invented and the U.S. Postal Service began using ZIP codes.

The nation was just beginning to develop an environmental conscience. And so was Merley McCall.

“Initially, I was just looking to get a job in chemistry,” McCall recalled. “But over the years, I grew to feel strongly about the job Ecology is doing.”

On July 1, 1970, Washington became the first state to establish a comprehensive environmental agency, predating the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by five months. It was the same year as the first Earth Day.

Over the years, McCall has worked for eight governors and 11 Ecology directors. He has high praise for Gov. Dan Evans, a Republican with a passion for the outdoors and the environment who called a special session in 1970 to form a state environmental agency and pulled it off with the help of a Democratic-controlled Legislature.

He has less-fond memories of the Dixy Lee Ray years, when, according to McCall – and history backs him up – environmental decisions based on sound science were sometimes trumped by politics.

His favorite Ecology director was the first one – John Biggs, a Democrat and former director of the then- Department of Game. He was someone Evans trusted to get the agency off to a good start.

“He was an amazing guy – someone with the ability to lead a new agency,” McCall said.

McCall was Ecology’s laboratory supervisor for 18 years but also worked in the department’s water-quality field operations, helping and prodding oil refineries and pulp mills to reduce their pollution discharges.

The best advice McCall said he ever received was to be careful that industry, community interest groups and environmentalists were never too happy with your work and decisions. “I think you want to keep everybody a little bit mad,” he said.

Asked to summarize the evolving environmental priorities at Ecology, McCall said water and air pollution dominated the 1970s, cleanup of hazardous waste came to the forefront in the 1980s, waste reduction and reuse defined the 1990s, and public health gained import in the past 10 years.

A conversation with McCall can’t help but include the question, “Why did you work so long?”

“I don’t have a lot of hobbies,” the father of three said, adding that he found his work both rewarding and challenging.

An agency historian by virtue of his long service, McCall for years has conducted a class with new Ecology employees to explain the history and workplace culture of Ecology.

“I tell them that things change, but it’s interesting, fulfilling work,” he said. “It’s an agency where the managers for the most part stay out of your way and let you do your job. It’s an agency willing to listen to new ideas.”

One other piece of advice he offers: “Don’t let the old guys wear you down.”


Don’t forget that breakfast Monday at McMenamins Spar Cafe in downtown Olympia supports a worthy cause. Half of the proceeds from meals served from 7 a.m.-noon help cover medical expenses incurred by longtime Spar waitress Genia Sutter, who suffered a stroke July 31 and faces mounting medical bills.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444