EPA keeping close eye on Louisiana, new chief Lisa Jackson says in N.O.By Mark Schleifstein, The Times-Picayune
November 18, 2009, 6:45AM
Lisa Jackson, a New Orleans native, was named EPA chief by President Barack Obama
"Many of these state programs are 20, 30 years old, and we might even need to hit the reset button and say, ‘OK, we’re going to hold you to a standard. If you’re doing your job, great, but if you’re not, we’re going to be here going inside until you are," Jackson said in an interview with reporters and editors of The Times-Picayune.
"It’s EPA’s job to oversee," Jackson said. "We often say we’re partners, but we’re also delegating our authority to a state, and of course, ultimately that means your ultimate answer would be to take it back.
"But I would hope that would rarely if ever be resorted to," she said of revoking a state’s authority to administer federal pollution laws.
Jackson, a New Orleans native, made her first visit to the city this week since she was appointed EPA chief by President Barack Obama. Her schedule includes a tour of the Lower 9th Ward on Wednesday morning, followed by a roundtable discussion with students and professors at SUNO at 12:30 p.m., a tour of green home sites in nearby Pontchartrain Park at 1:15 p.m., and a 2:30 p.m. speech at Tulane University’s Freeman Auditorium as part of the university’s Dean’s Colloquium.
"My priorities reflect the president’s, but go a little bit further," Jackson said.
Atop her list is pushing the administration’s "clean energy and climate revolution," she said, including efforts to reduce greenhouse gases and the economic and national-security costs of reliance on imported oil and natural gas.
"I believe firmly that we have a real opportunity here to transform our country’s users and producers of energy, but in so doing, make sure that we create jobs, that we build a foundation for economic prosperity, that we address national security concerns about foreign oil and … make ourselves more energy independent," she said.
Under her stewardship, EPA also will be focusing on water issues, working to revitalize the nation’s drinking water systems and reduce urban and agricultural runoff pollution. Such pollution plays a role in creating low-oxygen problems like the Gulf of Mexico’s vast "dead zone" near the mouth of the Mississippi River, she said.
"I think there are enormous opportunities in reconnecting Americans with the importance of clean water and a regulatory structure that’s all about clean water," she said.
EPA conference attendees took a tour Tuesday of remediated brownfields sites on the West Bank including the former Malter site in Gretna. The seven-acre site was contaminated by pesticides, herbicides, cleaning solvents and arsenic. After being cleaned up, the property was sold to Zatarain’s in September 2009.
Jackson is also refocusing the agency’s emphasis on toxic chemicals, in response to what she says is increasing public concern about the chemicals in everyday products.
"There are over 80,000 chemicals on the market today," she said. "Most of them haven’t been adequately tested in a way that someone can say whether or not they’re safe."
That’s largely the result of a toothless Toxic Substances and Control Act, she said, which has been slow to require testing of new chemicals.
"And I think we’re at a point in this country where both the chemical industry and the federal government, and the public health community, really all three, are coming together to say we believe it’s time to change that law, to strengthen it," Jackson said.
Jackson said she’s also interested in providing a voice for people, including people of color, who are outside the mainstream of modern environmentalism.
"People in this country still think of the Rocky Mountains or some sweeping vista of natural beauty (as the environment) and that seems important," Jackson said.
"But for me, coming from the city, being a city girl, my call to environmentalism was very much different," she said. "It was about a belief about an engineered world could be engineered in a way that was protective of people’s health and protective of people’s environment."
She said small communities and neighborhood groups are helping reshape "environmental" to apply to health concerns like asthma, about toxic substances in their soils, and the safety of their water supplies.
"I think what’s important is making sure those communities have a seat at the table when decisions about what environmental priorities should be ours, because too often what they really are looking for is an ability to make sure their issues are reflected in the environmental tableau," Jackson said. "So I spend a lot of time doing that as an African-American woman. As the first head of EPA who is a person of color, I think it is really important."
Jackson also hopes to add her voice as a former New Orleans resident to the administration’s review of federal and state coastal restoration efforts in Louisiana.
"I know that (White House Council for Environmental Quality Chairwoman) Nancy Sutley was here and the White House has made it clear they’re coordinating an effort across the federal government (to review coastal restoration plans), but I would be lying to you if I didn’t say I have a special interest in making sure the EPA is doing all it can to move those issues forward," she said.
Early Tuesday, Jackson spoke before EPA’s National Brownfields Conference at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, saying she was humbled to be back in "a city that nurtured my appreciation for God’s providence in all its natural forms."
"This city is literally a place where a young African-American woman could grow up to be a member of the Cabinet," she said. "I still do dream of coming home one day. The arms of the city are warm and embracing."
Jackson grew up in Pontchartrain Park and attended St. Mary’s Dominican High School, where she was the 1979 valedictorian. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering.
Jackson worked for EPA for 16 years, and later headed the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. She became EPA administrator in January.
Her mother and several family members were displaced from New Orleans when their home was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. Her mother now lives in Bossier City.
Molly Reid contributed to this report. Mark Schleifstein can be reached at mschleifstein@timespicayune.