Q&A: EPA Aministrator Lisa Jackson

After more than two years in office, Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson faces continued fallout from the Gulf oil disaster and a new Congress far more hostile to global warming legislation. Jackson reflects on these challenges, as well as on the EPA’s 40-year environmental legacy and its future. (This is an extended version of what appears in our March-April print edition.)

Audubon: Cap and trade is dead for now, and the Republican-led House seems poised to undermine the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions. What’s your outlook?
Lisa Jackson: One of the lessons I’ve learned in Washington is that it makes absolutely no sense to predict the future. I certainly was hopeful that we wouldn’t be sitting here without a new clean energy law, and yet here we sit. There’s clearly a need for the EPA to continue doing what it said it would do, which is to use the Clean Air Act to address carbon pollution and to recognize that progress is possible. We can make strides along with other agencies or departments on the executive side, even in the absence of legislation. I certainly hope we don’t lose our authority, because we couldn’t take steps such as the ones we’ve already made, like developing cleaner car standards, which are going to save millions and millions of tons of CO2 pollution. Such wins make great economic sense as gas prices rise.

What are your plans for the new Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, which you chair?
Under executive order from the president, we have a year—it ends in October of 2011—to give a plan to the president that outlines a restoration process, essentially, for the entire Gulf Coast region. It’s ambitious because the area includes six states, international waters, the coastline as well as the Gulf itself, and all its ecosystem diversity. The recent BP spill poses challenges, as do hypoxia issues related to nutrient pollution, sea level rise, and changing coastlines, especially in my home state of Louisiana, where subsidence and changes in the wetlands—some manmade, some not—have really challenged the ecosystem there. The president’s orders were clear, and we’ve focused our efforts on really making this an organic, grassroots, from-the-bottom-up process. This was not supposed to be about people in Washington telling people in the Gulf Coast what’s best to restore the ecosystem there. So we had our first Gulf Coast task meeting in November in Pensacola, Florida. Those meetings are intended to get input from the public; there are also a number of work groups that are being set up to develop not only the plan but to look at ways to streamline federal programs so that all our oars are rowing in the same direction on the federal level and we’re actually all working with the vision of a Gulf Coast that’s healthier and whose economy is strong.

Having grown up in Louisiana, do you feel personally connected to this project?
Oh, absolutely. I was thrilled on a number of levels that out of such a horrible tragedy as the BP spill came something that I believe, personally, is long overdue, which is a regional approach of looking at Gulf Coast restoration that the president has also committed real funding to. Individual states, especially Louisiana, have done a lot of thinking about state-level projects, but if you know anything about ecosystem restoration, you really can’t restore the ecosystem looking at one state at a time. So for me it’s just wonderful to see the Gulf of Mexico taking its place alongside other great water bodies in our country, like Chesapeake Bay, like the Great Lakes, like Puget Sound—all water bodies that have national-level programs and regional programs because they’re so important.

Where does the funding come from?

Staffing the task force essentially comes out of EPA’s budget. We hired John Hankinson, former Audubon of Florida board chair, as our executive director. Other federal agencies—the Department of Interior, NOAA, and more—are assigning us people to work on the task force for a year, and each Gulf Coast state has nominated members. Seed money for projects comes from the fines that BP and potentially others will pay.

Looking back, what do you see as the EPA’s most meaningful efforts?
I like to look at the agency’s legacy. Some of its accomplishments happened so early on that we take them for granted or never can remember a time when they didn’t occur, such as removing lead from gasoline. Most Americans either have never known or have forgotten a time when car emissions were so dirty that they were literally putting lead all over our lawns and resulting in high blood lead levels. Blood lead levels have gone down dramatically as a result. I also like to point to the technological innovations that have come about in this country only because of our desire for clean air or water, such as ultraviolet filtration of water, catalytic converters on cars, or scrubbers on our power plants—all these things were done by implementing the Clean Air Act. Hundreds of sites have been cleaned up under the Superfund program and thousands under the brownfield program. Safe drinking water laws make it possible for 90 percent of Americans—a number that’s still too low—to drink water that they know is tested and reported out regularly to them in terms of meeting federal standards. All these things we take for granted as Americans, but they’re anything but guaranteed anywhere else in the world.

What are the agency’s biggest challenges?
When it comes to clean water, our challenge in the future is nutrient pollution and runoff. We’ve done a decent job of really regulating discharge through pipes into water bodies, but we now have become keenly aware of the fact that our biggest enemy is what happens when it rains—when rainwater hits our downtowns or rainwater hits our fields or our animal operations and carries with it sediment loaded with phosphorus or nitrogen. What we’re seeing are water bodies that are very, very stressed, some of them not functioning, because they’ve been overtaken with algae, and in some cases even toxic algae because the nutrients have basically over-fertilized the water bodies. We have a huge challenge, because it’s easier to control pollution from a pipe than it is from runoff. It requires changes in the way we do business and changes in the way we live our daily lives that are going to require education and time for people to understand and accept. When it comes to clean air, we’ve made tremendous progress, but we now see two things are happening: The levels of pollution that we have, even in places where folks have struggled to bring pollution levels down, are probably still not low enough. And we really haven’t done a good job of taking care of the most vulnerable among us—our children. Our children are showing alarming rates of asthma, alarming rates of autism. There’s still way too much mercury in our waters, too much soot in our air, too much diesel pollution as well. So we have those challenges. Another challenge is that after 40 years, people sort of say, “Well, aren’t you done yet?” That’s a reasonable question to ask, but I think the answer is that this work requires constant vigilance, constant science, and constant oversight, because the environment is not something we can simply do once and be done with. So I think our biggest challenge might be reminding the American people that our work won’t be done, that you need a guardian of your public health and of clean air and clean air, and that’s EPA’s job.

Where do you see the Environmental Protection Agency by its 50th anniversary?
I think that many initiatives that we launched last year will be affecting the agency in 10 years. We just announced a program with the National Academy of Sciences that will help us tackle our numerous jobs in sustainable ways that don’t transfer pollution from one medium or community to the next. I also hope that we’ll continue to diversify and hire young, committed people who do great science.

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