First African American administrator of the EPA explains her views on environmental racism.
March 17, 2009
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson
In January, Lisa Jackson became the first African American administrator of the EPA. She previously served as chief of staff to the New Jersey governor and as commissioner of the state's Environmental Protection department. During a prior 16-year tenure at the agency, she was involved in various operations, including the federal Superfund site remediation program. Jackson grew up in New Orleans, graduated from Tulane's School of Chemical Engineering and holds a master's degree from Princeton.
Tavis: Lisa Jackson is the newly appointed administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, the first African American to hold the post. Prior to joining the administration she served as chief of staff for New Jersey Governor John Corzine. She joins us tonight from Washington. Administrator Jackson, nice to have you on the program.
Lisa Jackson: Oh, it’s an honor to be here, Tavis, thanks so much.
Tavis: Can I start by saying congratulations?
Jackson: You absolutely may, and it feels good – it really does.
Tavis: Congratulations, then. Much has been made about the fact, and I just referenced it a moment ago, that you are, of course, the first African American woman – first African American, period – to be head of the EPA. From your perspective, because I want to ask you about that, from your perspective what does that mean, if anything?
Jackson: Well, I’m fond of saying that the president, in nominating me and then when I got confirmed, literally changed the face of environmentalism in this country. Still today in the year 2009 some people think that the environment is not an issue for people of color, and I hope that if nothing else I’m a very vibrant symbol of the fact that people of color should see themselves in the environmental movement. It’s extraordinarily important to them and their families.
Tavis: Indeed we should. And you also know, having done this for so many years, that there is a distinct difference, though, in terms of politics, between symbolism and substance. You know that very well, the distinction between the two, symbolism and substance.
I guess the question is whether or not, on the substance, since there was not a lot of conversation during the campaign about the environment in terms of environmental racism where people of color are concerned, what say you about that as administrator?
Jackson: Well, I think it’s a real issue. I think it is an issue for any community that feels itself disproportionately impacted by any aspect of environmental regulation. First and foremost at the EPA we are about protecting human health and the environment, but too often, whether it be the elderly or children or people in a community that find themselves subject to multiple sources of pollution, I think communities have felt let down in the past that EPA didn’t understand their particular needs.
Tavis: In this stimulus package which has just passed, I finally now had a chance to go through all the whatever, 1,000, 2,000 pages of it, and I was – I won’t say surprised – I was pleased to see that much of what President Obama talked about as a candidate around the environment, around energy, he put a lot of that in the stimulus package.
For those who have not had a chance to read this document – I’ve been on a book tour; I’ve had a lot of plane time – so for those who have not had a chance to read the document, specifically where your area of expertise is concerned – energy, environment – talk to me about what’s actually in the package that most of us don’t know about.
Jackson: Well, there was much made of the fact that the president – that this is actually the largest energy bill. If it had passed on its own, the amount of funding for renewable energy, for making our homes, our schools, our businesses, energy efficient, is actually the largest ever for our country, and that’s a very real – that’s not a symbol, that is substance.
That’s money going towards issues that are extraordinarily important for the future energy security of our country. And I think you hit it right on the head, Tavis, when you said that he has, this president in this bill and with Congress’ support, has managed to tie two very important things – the green economy, money, with the green environment.
There’s a lot of work to be done, and that work is an investment in things like in addition to energy we have money in for clean water, we have money in for safe drinking water and for wastewater treatments in our cities.
We have money for diesel emission reductions. As you know well, diesel emissions on a street corner in some cities make it more dangerous to be on that street corner than – about five times more dangerous than other places in the country. And we have money for brownfields cleanup and for superfund cleanups and underground storage cleanups.
And I think what that does, on top of everything else, besides the great environmental work, is reinforce the idea that those investments are actually jobs as well, and we’re investing in our health as well as our economy.
Tavis: I’m glad you made that last point because there have been a lot of folk for the last few years who’ve been making that point and pushing candidates, including Mr. Obama, to address these issues – this issue specifically of greening the ghetto first. Majora Carter talking about that, Van Jones talking about that, about how we get this administration to understand the need to green the ghetto first.
If you can green the ghetto first then you do two things simultaneously: you reduce poverty and you save the planet that we live on. Talk to me about your interests, your ideas, your thoughts specifically about those communities and greening, as somebody else would put it, the ghetto first.
Jackson: Well, any community – the heart of environmental is where you are. It’s where you live. And developing in people and understanding that we need to control the environment, in the very biggest sense of the word, around us. And so when I hear people like Van talk about the green-collar economy, they’re saying a few things.
They’re saying we need these jobs. These are jobs that when you talk about energy efficiency work, for example, or brown fields cleanup, they have to be done here in this country in the community, and they want to make sure that not only does this rising tide lift all boats, but that there’s a preference to make sure that that money gets directed in places where it can do real good environmentally as well.
And I’ll tell you that it’s not just about the ghetto, it’s not just about any one community. There are rural communities in this country where water quality is very bad, and some of this money will go to finally be able to address water quality so people don’t have to make a choice anywhere in this country between safe water and a bill that they can afford for their local water company.
So I think it’s never enough money, but I think it’s a strong statement about the importance of keeping those issues front and center for the American people.
Tavis: I assume that you’re going to take the EPA in a different direction than we got under eight years of the Bush administration. Tell me what concerns you most about what they were doing or not doing, as it were. You can talk about them now; they’re out of the building. (Laughter) So what were they doing or not doing, as it were, that has concerned you or that does concern you now that you are in charge of the EPA?
Jackson: Well, Tavis, I’m fond of saying change has definitely come to the EPA, and there’s a couple of messages here for our employees. The first is that we are back on the job. We want the American people to know that EPA is back and that we take very seriously our job to protect human health and the environment.
Now we also know we have to earn the trust of the American people again, and the ways we will do that will be by relying on a couple of key pillars. The first is science.
EPA has an extraordinarily educated work force – as many scientists in the government as you’ll find anywhere I think except for NASA. We have scientists who have a lot to say about issues, whether it’s clean air, whether it’s air toxics, whether it’s water pollution, whether it’s superfund cleanup, whether it’s toxic chemicals that enter our country or leave our country.
All the scientists need to be brought back to the front of this agency so that the people of our country know that there are scientists whose only job in government is to protect human health and the environment.
Then comes the law. I’m actually a scientist by training, but the law is extraordinarily important. When you talk about the last eight years, for me the largest tragedy is that we lost eight years fighting court battles that over and over again now we are seeing where we lose.
The government has lost eight years of time fighting for air standards that were not protective of human health, fighting to roll back protections for water that basically violate some of the tenets of the Clean Water Act.
So now the courts are starting to speak on that issue, and when you think about that lost time – I like to say it’s one thing to lose a court battle, but when the air is dirty we’re losing kids, we’re losing people on hot summer days to asthma attacks and lung problems.
So we have science, we have the law, we have to be transparent in what we do, and we must always keep an eye on those communities that are disproportionately impacted by pollution, by the ravages of sort of the other side of our industrial society.
Tavis: You know these stats better than I do, but when you talk about these kids with asthma, one in three kids in Harlem has asthma – one in three young children in Harlem has asthma. I raise that only because I want to ask whether or not the damage is irreparable. Once you get a community that has contracted asthma or cancer, any number of other illnesses and life-threatening diseases because of their proximity to these environmental hazards, how do you get that life back? What do you do?
Jackson: Well, asthma’s a little bit different than cancer, obviously. Asthma – and I’m not a physician, but I have a son with asthma. My youngest son spent his first Christmas in the hospital with a severe asthma attack. Asthma is triggered. There are triggers for asthma. So our job here is to try to remove those triggers that are atmospheric – that are in the air on a hot summer day, especially in the city, because of the heat island effect.
Ozone and ground-level ozone, which is also called smog, and particulate matter from diesel engines trigger asthma attacks, and you can watch the temperature go up and the hospital admissions spike. And so that we can address easier than we can some of the toxic issues – toxics that may be triggering cancers in children and adults alike.
And so there I think we have certainly lost some amount of time, but it’s all about slowly but surely showing the American people progress in reducing toxic chemicals.
Tavis: So if you’ve got a court system that’s stacked against you, but that’s where these cases have to be heard, you’re arguing science which is, again, debatable on any number of fronts – I’m trying to figure out where and how you get traction to make the U-turn you want to make on the environment.
Jackson: Well, I think the traction is with the American people, Tavis. I really do believe that every major environmental law, if you see the history of environmental laws, came from people who said, “Okay, we’re tired of seeing our lakes and rivers on fire. We got a Clean Water Act.”
And we’re tired of the fact that we can’t answer the questions about why people in this country at this time in this day and age can’t count on clean air as one of the things that goes along with the territory, or clean water. And I think it’s very much the same with climate change, and very much the same with energy security and independence.
The American people are smart. They’re smart enough to have elected this president because they wanted a change; they wanted their government to work for them. And I think it’ll ultimately be the American people who demand accountability on protection of human health and the environment. After all, we work for them.
Tavis: I’m honored and delighted that you are there at the EPA, and I’m delighted you took time to talk to us tonight, Ms. Jackson.
Jackson: Thank you so much for the time. Thank you very much, Tavis.
Tavis: Glad to have you on.
Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm