A Breath of Clean Air

by Editorial

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson is poised to tackle the most ambitious green agenda in 100 years

By Christina Wilkie

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson

On the eve of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was, by all accounts, both demoralized and divided. The situation was caused by a two-term administration that viewed environmental regulation as a threat to economic growth, and which appointed senior administrators who shared this view. President Obama has promised dramatic change in policy, and after a little more than two months, there are signs this is happening. The threat of climate change hovers near the top of the new administration’s domestic priority list, which reflects widespread public support for conservation initiatives, renewable energy, and the reduction of carbon emissions.

The nexus between the administration’s agenda and the more than 18,000 full-time employees at the EPA is Administrator Lisa Perez Jackson, a warm, down-to-earth New Orleans native who is the mother of two young boys, and the first African-American to lead the agency. Sitting in the “green room” of her suite at EPA headquarters (named for the dark green marble floor), she is accompanied by two press secretaries and a special assistant, wielding a total of six Blackberries among them.

Jackson served as head of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection from early 2006 until last fall, when she was tapped to be Gov. Jon Corzine’s chief-of-staff. She began her job in his office on Dec. 1, but as she describes it, there was barely time to set up her desk when the phone rang. The hiring process included interviews with then-President-elect Obama and meetings with Rahm Emmanuel, Valerie Jarret and John Podesta. At her nomination announcement, Jackson recalls being struck by the President-elect’s kindness to her husband, Kenny, and her two sons, Marcus and Brian.

After a unanimous Senate confirmation, Jackson, who holds a Master’s Degree in Chemical Engineering from Princeton University, was sworn in as EPA Administrator on January 22, capping a previous career with the agency that had spanned more than 16 years, many spent tackling such politically sensitive issues as hazardous waste cleanup, enforcement of land use permits, and the creation of regulatory standards. This hard-won experience in the trenches of environmental policy has prepared Jackson for her current role, which thus far appears to require equal parts bold conviction (to reverse certain Bush-era directives) and deft diplomacy (to persuade coal plants to reduce emissions without forcing them to cut jobs). In the end, it all boils down to a few simple priorities: clean air, water, and land; an adherence to science; and a focus on toxic chemicals.

Jackson’s first order of business at the EPA is addressing air quality standards, and she is clearly frustrated by the lack of progress on this issue. “Here we are in 2009, with essentially no real structure for assuring Americans clean air,” she says, incredulously. “We have a clean air act that dates back to the ’70s, but no way of making sure there’s a control on things like sulfur dioxide, which makes people sick!” At this point her exasperation turns to resolve. “We owe the American people a lot of work to put stringent, meaningful, controls on air pollution – now.”

President Obama shares Jackson’s sense of urgency, and on her first day at the EPA he signed a memorandum to begin the process of reversing the Bush Administration’s controversial refusal to allow California to impose tighter vehicle emissions standards. The signed document hangs on the wall in her office, but after 20 years in politics she knows better than to gloat, and describes the imminent reversal of the ban in a measured, non-partisan tone. Jackson’s words are carefully chosen: “We reopened the public comments and we intend to follow the law,” she says with a knowing gleam in her eye. “Even though we haven’t made a decision, the president’s order, and our actions reflect the fact that states have already looked at this issue and decided that lower emission cars are good for the health of their citizens.” Pitch perfect.

Public health is a recurring theme in Jackson’s work, and it becomes increasingly clear the EPA administrator sees herself first and foremost as a public health advocate.She is more concerned with the impact polluted environments have on people than she is with more theoretical preservation of the environment per se, and she acknowledges that this represents a shift in mission at EPA. “We should be a public health agency, because right now there are people who are getting sick because their air and water have been neglected for the last eight years,” she explains. “So yes, I want to elevate that connection between health and our mission.” For Jackson, the most important battles at EPA will be waged not in federal courtrooms or corporate negotiating tables, but in inner city medical clinics and rural poison control centers.

Informing her pragmatic, populist approach to public health and the environment at the EPA is Jackson’s fundamental belief that all Americans have “a right to clean air and clean water and clean land no matter where they live.” In theory, this sounds relatively straightforward, but the broader concept, known as environmental justice, has a long and complicated history in the United States. Examples abound of the disproportionate effects that environmental hazards have on the poor and powerless: African-American children are six times more likely to suffer from pollution-related asthma than white children, and Native American populations consistently record exorbitant rates of radiation-related diseases linked to nuclear waste dumps.

The newest frontier in the environmental justice movement has nothing to do with geography – and everything to do with employment. President Obama’s Economic Recovery Act provides billions of dollars for the creation of “green jobs” in sustainable industries, and Jackson sees a unique opportunity to engage traditionally marginalized groups; for example, urban minorities. “I love what Van Jones is saying about this,” she says, referring to the newly appointed special advisor for green jobs, enterprise and innovation at the White House. “Let’s make sure the green economy isn’t just for those who already have advanced skills; because when you give an out-of-work person a green job, you make an environmentalist for life.”

Jackson’s ability to comprehend the nation’s environmental challenges on multiple levels (economic, sociological, political, etc.), and her willingness to collaborate with other federal departments are proving to be hallmarks of the Obama Cabinet. “It’s really amazing when Labor Secretary Hilda Solis comes in and says, “I’m really interested in green jobs.” Her face lights up as she says this, and her enthusiasm for her colleagues feels genuine and refreshing – a far cry from the well-publicized turf wars that rocked the Bush White House. “No one agency or department is going to transform the American economy,” she notes. “That’s our common mission, and it will be a group effort.”

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