The Protector

The Protector

Lisa P. Jackson, in her job as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, may seem far removed from the everyday concerns of American people. But nothing could be more false, asserts the EPA administrator. “You just have to realize that the environment is the air you breathe and the water that comes out of your tap.” With more than 20 years of experience in environmental protection, and as a married mother of two teenage boys–the younger of whom has asthma and uses an inhaler twice a day–Jackson knows all too well how inextricably the environment is linked to health. She is committed to engaging Americans not only in the health and safety benefits of environmental protection, but also in the economic opportunity in business development and job creation that protecting the environment affords. She also hopes to renew the public’s trust in the EPA’s work.

Just a year ago, before Jackson was sworn in as the first African American administrator of the EPA, the agency had been called one of the most demoralized in the federal government. But the new administrator’s commitment to the environment is unassailable. The White House has sought to empower the EPA to be an enforcer for carbon emissions. At press time, the White House was battling with Congress to determine who will take the lead. “I love to point out that we have ‘protection’ in our name,” says Jackson, who was raised in New Orleans. “If we’re not doing it, there is simply no other agency in the federal family whose job it is to protect the environment.” The agency’s job may have gotten easier: Under the Obama administration, the EPA received a 30% increase in funding–the largest in its history.

To date the EPA has obligated nearly 99% of its Recovery Act funding to states across the nation for a wide variety of projects that will put Americans to work while improving air quality, protecting drinking water, or cleaning up hazardous or blighted land. According to Jackson, the agency’s Recovery Act funding has saved or created nearly 6,800 jobs. We talked with Jackson about her vision and goals for the agency in 2010 and beyond.

Improving air quality and protecting America’s water are two of your top priorities. What progress have you made in those areas?

Last year EPA initiated a program to monitor air quality around some of the nation’s public schools in response to a USA Today article about high levels of particulate matter in the air around the places where our kids go to learn. Parents across the nation read about how children absorb toxic pollutants in the same quantities as adults. In response, EPA launched a nationwide study to test the air around more than 60 schools most at risk.

In December, EPA also proposed new, stricter standards for smog and for NO2 [nitrogen dioxide, which comes from vehicles and industrial facilities]. Smog, also known as ground-level ozone, is linked to a number of serious health problems ranging from aggravation of asthma to increased risk of premature death in people with heart or lung disease. Short-term exposure to NO2 has been linked to impaired lung function and increased respiratory infections, especially in people with asthma.

Today, the portfolio of pollution and other challenges around water quality is more varied than it has ever been. Chemicals seep into our water supply from a variety of less conventional places. That’s why last year I unveiled the Obama administration’s goals for reform of dangerous toxins, chemicals, and pesticides. I also announced plans for a major push to strengthen EPA’s current chemical management program and increase the pace of the agency’s efforts to address chemicals that pose a risk to the public. We invested $6 billion in drinking water and wastewater projects to create a stronger infrastructure for clean water, to boost the economy, and to create jobs. I also directed the agency to revamp our enforcement program, because we can have good regulations that protect our water but we must do a good job of enforcing them.