Lisa Jackson (Courtesy of the New Jersey DEQ)
New Jersey's top environmental officer, Lisa Jackson, is Barack Obama's nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. And the President-elect promises big changes for the agency. But Washington correspondent Jeff Young reports that some New Jersey environmentalists - including some who worked for Jackson - are highly critical of her record there.
CURWOOD: The confirmations of that team of scientists, John Holdren, Steven Chu and Jane Lubchenco are expected to move smoothly through the Senate.
But it may not be so simple for Barack Obama’s pick for EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson. The woman who would become the first African American head of the Environmental Protection Agency has drawn criticism from some in New Jersey about her performance as that state’s top environmental officer. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.
YOUNG: When President elect Obama introduced Lisa Jackson as his nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Jackson gave five reasons she wanted job.
JACKSON: As an environmentalist, as a public servant as a native New Orleanian and a as New Jerseyan, and most importantly as a mother, there is no higher calling for me than to lead this vital agency at this vital time.
YOUNG: Jackson’s a chemical engineer with 20 years experience in environmental regulation at the state and federal levels. She worked in EPA’s Superfund program for toxic waste cleanups in the 1990s and led New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection for the past 3 years. Jackson grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, a place that still holds importance for her. She told NJN Public Broadcasting in New Jersey that her parents lost their home to Hurricane Katrina.
JACKSON: I happened to be there by chance; my Mom’s birthday is a few days prior. And we actually evacuated on her birthday August 27th. As sad as New Orleans is and it’s a tragedy I think, one thing it did do is raise awareness.
YOUNG: When Jackson accepted the top environmental job in New Jersey, her parents heard her eloquent speech about the “shameful failures of government” after the storm that renewed her commitment to protecting the public. Under her watch, the state cracked down on some scofflaw polluters and strengthened waterway protections.
New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel praised Jackson, especially for her work on climate change.
TITTEL: Lisa Jackson was the person who really got our Global Warming Response Act passed. She was the person who convinced our governor, who originally opposed the bill, to support the bill, and if we get this plan implemented it will be a leader in the country on wind and solar power.
YOUNG: The state plans to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by mid century. Other state environmentalists, however, don’t rate Jackson very highly. Bob Spiegel directs the Edison Wetlands Association, which focuses on New Jersey’s thousands of highly toxic waste sites.
SPIEGEL: Anyone that tells you she had done a good job in New Jersey and she should be promoted to leading the environmental protectorate for the United States, they’re just not being honest. I would say Ms. Jackson got a D.
YOUNG: Spiegel says even the Bush administration’s EPA criticized the state for poorly managing its Superfund sites. He says his group had to file federal suit to stop a flagrant polluter because he couldn’t persuade Jackson to take action. And Spiegel faults Jackson in one of the state’s most infamous contamination cases. A daycare center called Kiddie College operated on the former grounds of a thermometer factory that was tainted with mercury, a powerful neurotoxin.
SPIEGEL: Even though DEP was made aware of the fact that children were being exposed in this former thermometer factory it took Lisa Jackson four months to notify families and parents of the children that they were being exposed to very high levels of mercury.
YOUNG: Jackson admitted that her agency shared some of the blame for the contaminated daycare center. And the state later passed a bill to prevent such reuse of contaminated sites.
Jackson also faces criticism from some who worked for her in New Jersey. One scientist resigned because she felt Jackson had ignored science about the carcinogen chromium. Jeff Ruch directs PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which compiled a list of worker complaints about Jackson. Ruch says they’re similar to complaints he hears from federal employees at the Bush EPA.
RUCH: Retaliation against whistleblowers, marginalization of science, a penchant for secrecy. If that’s the management style she brings to EPA it will not be the change we need.
YOUNG: Ruch points to the case of whistleblower Dennis Zannoni. Zannoni was the agency’s top nuclear energy official. When he raised concerns about the safety of the Oyster Creek facility—the oldest nuclear power plant in the country—he soon found himself off the nuclear beat.
ZANNONI: One day, January 30, 2007, I was removed without reason from my position as chief nuclear engineer and pretty much put in a broom closet in the department. And it’s been like that for two years.
YOUNG: Jackson’s defenders say her critics don’t understand the political constraints Jackson faced, working for a governor who did not make the environment a priority. Ruch at PEER says it’s important that the senators considering the next EPA administrator at least ask Jackson to defend her record.
RUCH: We know it’s somewhat impolitic for us to be questioning an Obama nomination. At this time, particularly someone who would be the first African-American head of EPA. So, to some extent, we are the skunk at the garden party.
YOUNG: Key members of the Senate’s environment committee support Jackson, but say they will ask some tough questions. Democrat Frank Lautenberg is New Jersey’s senior senator.
LAUTENBERG: She works very hard; she’s knowledgeable. Now we’re going to be talking to her and we’re going to review some of the concerns that have been expressed but based on the information that we have to date she looks like a really good person for that job.
EPA. Obama is creating a new White House position to oversee global warming and energy issues—possibly reducing EPA’s clout on those important questions.
Most observers predict easy confirmation for Jackson. But the flurry of criticism shows some are uneasy about whether Obama’s pick for the EPA will bring real change to the struggling agency.
For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.
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