The new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson. (Courtesy of the EPA)
Lisa Jackson has no small job ahead of her. As the new EPA administrator, she's charged with protecting public health and safeguarding the environment. One of her first initiatives is to follow up on a USA Today series that found hundreds of America's schools located dangerously close to toxic hot spots. Administrator Jackson talks with host Bruce Gellerman about testing the air that schoolchildren breathe, regulating carbon dioxide, and what she'd like to do with the EPA's proposed budget increase.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts. This is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood.
The new head of the US Environmental Protection Agency has her work cut out for her. Administrator Lisa Jackson trained as chemical engineer. Now she oversees an agency with 18,000 workers and the nation’s environment.
One of the first issues confronting her is toxic chemicals in the air around America’s schools. A recent USA Today investigation, using the EPA’s own data, found hundreds of schools where students were exposed to industrial pollutants at levels far exceeding federal standards.
From toxic chemicals to the threat of climate change - it’s Lisa Jackson’s responsibility to come up with the answers - and we called her up to ask her the questions. Ms. Jackson, welcome to Living on Earth.
JACKSON: Well thanks for having me.
GELLERMAN: So how’s the new job?
JACKSON: Well, it’s overwhelming. The D.C. expression is drinking from a fire hose, but everyday is a little bit better and the extraordinary staff here at the EPA have just been doing a fantastic job getting me oriented again. Or I should say reoriented back to the agency.
GELLERMAN: Yeah, you worked there many years ago.
JACKSON: Yeah, the years are starting to pile up. I was here sixteen years altogether. A couple years in Washington D.C. and most of my time spent in the New York City regional office.
GELLERMAN: Well let’s talk about the USA Today series, “The Smoke Stack Effect.” It found that there were extremely high levels of toxic air pollution around hundreds of the country’s schools. And that was published around the same time you were nominated to lead the EPA. What was your reaction to the series?
JACKSON: You know, I think every parent who read that story or who saw the headlines or even heard about it had some level of concern. And, you know, talking with the USA Today reporters, I think what they wanted to do, they were very successful in doing which was asking the right questions and questions that I think it’s fine for EPA initially to say we don’t know, but what I hope our response has been is that it’s our job to know, to find out, to be able to say, to speak to parents and give them information so that they can feel more at ease - or, alternatively, ask for more to make sure that at the end of the day they feel comfortable about the school environments for their children. We’re embarking now on a several month long partnership with states and local entities to do modeling around those schools where we think we’re most likely to see problems, to try to get additional information to bring to bear on this.
GELLERMAN: Well what can you do if you do find a problem at these schools?
JACKSON: Well, EPA’s authorities are great, states and locals are great and sometimes the most important thing is to get that information out to parents, because as a mother, I know that if a parent thinks that their school is unsafe, they’re gonna begin to be our biggest advocates for action. You know, first thing we’ll do is make the local authorities aware of the information we have so that we can all work together to come up with a solution.
GELLERMAN: So you’d use the Clean Air Act to regulate these hot spots if need be?
JACKSON: Sure. We could use our authorities under the Clean Air Act. You know, EPA is required since 1990 to limit emissions of air toxics. These are chemicals that have the potential essentially to cause cancer and other serious health effects. And since 1990, EPA has issued 96 regulations covering about 174 categories of industrial chemicals. And, you know, the data show that between 1990 and 2005, emissions of air toxics have actually declined by 41 percent, largely due to EPA regulation, although there’s certainly lots of categories left to be addressed. And I think what the story, especially with schools goes – brings to bear is the issue that, you know, overall reductions in toxic levels are certainly important and first and foremost EPA is concerned about the quality of our air as a whole, but hot spots – schools located near sources – the general reduction doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve done our job. Children’s health is still not being protected. And those issues mean that we have to give special attention to potential hot spots of contamination. But again, as a parent, my experience is that any number of folks will be more than happy to advocate with us and work with us to address any concerns.
GELLERMAN: I want to switch gears a bit now.
GELLERMAN: You know, it’s almost two years that the Supreme Court handed down its historic ruling. It was Massachusetts verse the EPA. And it ruled then that the EPA can regulate carbon dioxide as an air pollutant under the Clean Air Act. I’m wondering, what are you going to do with that authority now?
JACKSON: Well, what the Supreme Court said, Bruce, was that EPA – it required EPA to make a finding, affirmatively or not, as to whether green house gases endanger public health and welfare. And so for two – almost two years now – EPA has owed something, if you will, to the American public. And that’s a statement on a fairly fundamental issue. The reason that lawyers and regulators and lot of people who watch Washington are concerned is because, if EPA makes a finding of endangerment as it’s called – that finding can trigger EPA’s regulatory authority under the Clean Air Act to address climate change. But, I like to think of it more as the average citizen. I think it’s reasonable for the average citizen to expect the Environmental Protection Agency to have an opinion on whether green house gases endanger public health and welfare, And so we are expediting getting a finding either way out to the American people.
GELLERMAN: It’s a very tantalizing answer you gave there.
GELLERMAN: April 2nd is the two year anniversary – you think you’ll have an answer for the public by then?
JACKSON: No, you know, Bruce, I don’t wanna get wrapped up in one particular date. I think what I’d like the public to know is a couple things. First, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama, I take very seriously our responsibility to speak to the American people on the issues of the day, and climate change and greenhouse gases is one of them. So we will expedite our work. I would not advise anyone to put money down on April 2nd as the date. I think instead what I’d like people to know is that we’re gonna get a determination out one way or the other as soon as possible, and it will be subject to public comment, and I’m sure it will engender much of that.
GELLERMAN: So what do you think is the best way to regulate CO2, if you had to? Would it be EPA regulations or do you think Congress should take a role in this and come up with new laws?
JACKSON: Well, I think new legislation that specifically is designed to address climate change is optimal. It probably puts to bed a world of potential lawsuits that are waiting to happen and will give very clear direction, obviously law, in the issue. But what we’ve also said is that we know we owe some things to the American people, and we know that we owe them a robust look at the endangerment issue, public comment and, if indeed regulation turns out to be a path that we will travel, we will do it deliberately, but we will do it mindful of the importance of this issue on the environmental agenda of the American people.
GELLERMAN: There are some businesses that say if the Environmental Protection Agency were to regulate CO2 emissions, they might have to close down, especially in this economic environment.
JACKSON: Well, you know, there are any number of doomsday scenarios with respect to regulation that I think it’s part of my job also to assure people that we’re not going to pursue. One of the reasons legislation is better is that it gives clear direction on to what’s regulated and what’s not, and it allays some of the concerns that EPA will begin regulating small businesses and tiny sources. I think it’s important for us to remember that major sources of green house gases are still our transportation – how we get around as a people, as a nation – and how we generate power. And President Obama has given us clear direction, both in the Recovery Act he just signed and his upcoming budget that he believes that the new energy economy, renewable energy, and energy efficiency should all be part of our economy going forward. And so there are lots of things we can do on energy and transportation that will help to move us along a path to a new energy future and a new low carbon future.
GELLERMAN: Well you are getting a lot more tools in terms of dollars from President Obama’s proposed budget.
GELLERMAN: Well, I am going to ask you to choose your top three priorities for the money.
GELLERMAN: What would you do with it?
JACKSON: Oh man, let’s see. I think, I’d like to talk less about programs for our first meeting, Bruce, and talk more about the importance of restoring the American public’s trust that EPA is first and foremost a science based organization. That we need to be a place where American’s look to get answers and American’s need to believe that those answers are based on the soundest science that we can possibly muster and without regard to politics, if you will. That the environment is clearly a nonpartisan, nonpolitical issue at its heart. People care about the places where they live and work. So we’ve talked a lot about making sure that agency scientists are – and their science – are respected and conversely, that they live up to awesome responsibility of being a voice for the environment and public health in this country.
Second, we talked about restoring the rule of law at this agency. I wouldn’t call it lawless, but we’ve had some – a number of cases where our major regulatory actions, especially on air, have been overturned by the courts. And what’s really disturbing there is that, in the mean time, a framework for protection of human health is undermined.
Finally, we’ve talked a lot about transparency and the importance of people being able to see inside this agency and feel assured that no individual stakeholder or special interest is making the agenda, that our agenda is governed by an open dialogue with all stake holders, environmental groups, industry advocates of all types, and then we move on based on science and the law. You know, this EPA, the Obama EPA is on the job, and all we can ask of the American people is that we be given an opportunity to earn their trust and to have them see us as a steward of the issues that they care about. That is our fundamental job here at EPA.
GELLERMAN: Ms. Jackson, you – you have a lot on your plate.
JACKSON: [Laughs] Thanks. But it’s a great job.
GELLERMAN: Well Administrator Jackson, I want to thank you very much for talking with us, and let’s do it again sometime soon, okay?
JACKSON: That’d be great, Bruce. Look forward to meeting you as well. Thank you so much.
GELLERMAN: Lisa Jackson is the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
[MUSIC: James Taylor “Inner Mystic Love” from New World (Real Self Records 2009)]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead – It’s not a drop in the ocean…The Great Lakes get a bucket full of cash to clean up their act. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
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