Asked if anything about her new job has surprised her, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson says only the intensity has. "These first few months are the hardest I have worked in my life," she says. Spurred by President Obama, the EPA has moved quickly on a number of regulatory fronts, particularly on climate change. But that's just one of the difficult issues before Jackson, a trained chemical engineer who worked for more than 15 years at EPA before serving as New Jersey's chief environmental regulator from 2006 to 2008. As Jackson knows well, when President Nixon created the EPA almost 40 years ago, the country had major air- and water-quality problems. Many of those concerns persist in some form today. Signaling a break from the Bush administration's more lax approach to regulation, Jackson says, "When the EPA doesn't do its job, people's health and the environment suffer." To mark Earth Day today, U.S. News spoke with Jackson about her plans for the agency. Excerpts:
The first Earth Day was held in 1970, the same year as EPA's founding, and many people today regard the early 1970s as a watershed moment for environmentalism. Do you think we're at a similar moment now?
I really do. I think we are at a watershed for a broader type of environmentalism, one that understands that climate and pollution regulation are important and can be accomplished by real investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency. I think the country has come to understand that for so many concerns—another one would be competitiveness and breaking our dependency on oil—all those things still bring you back to the environmental movement and the importance of a strong and vital EPA.
What's the biggest problem? What needs the most attention?
I think air pollution. I think Americans at this time are still very concerned about air pollution. The Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act were extremely important and very effective. But the truth of the matter is that here in 2009, we have quite a workload ahead of us in dealing with the so-called criteria pollutants—nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and ozone. The vast majority of Americans still live in areas that are in nonattainment for standards for all those pollutants or very close to being in nonattainment.
Are there places where existing regulations haven't kept pace with changes in society?
In the case of air and water, it's not so much that the challenges have changed; it's that we owe the American people tough regulations that will stand up to legal scrutiny, because the regulations put forward by the Bush administration haven't in many instances, especially with respect to air.
Have some threats been overlooked?
One real challenge before us is to deal with the issue of toxic chemicals. Part of EPA's bread and butter, and one of the things that only EPA does in government, is to assess toxic chemicals and then communicate the risk associated with them to the American people and to people who want to manufacture with chemicals. I think it's fair to say that most Americans right now have lost confidence in the federal government's ability to adequately assess the huge range of new chemicals that are coming on the market and being introduced into the environment. We need to beef up our efforts.
What chemicals, specifically? Last year, for example, many people were alarmed by reports showing small amounts of pharmaceutical drugs in drinking water.
It runs the gamut. The new unknowns come from the fact that science has progressed and we can now see very small, trace amounts of materials in water and air. But there are also the old bugaboo chemicals, some of the persistent ones like dioxin [a chemical released by waste incinerators and other manufacturing processes]. EPA has not spoken definitively yet on its risk assessment for dioxin. And then there are chemicals that have been around where EPA's scientists have yet to complete assessments, like perchlorate [an ingredient in rocket fuel and explosives]. And then on top of that, there is the consumer products aspect. We have a whole commission that deals with that, but EPA's science is one of the backbones to making sure that the American people feel comfortable with what's in the products they use.
The EPA recently announced it was going to conduct more diligent reviews of permits for mountaintop coal mining operations. Some accused you of trying to halt such projects. What's happening here?
EPA has a job to do when it comes to those permits, which is to review the permits specifically with an eye towards tracking down and identifying any significant impact on water and water quality. EPA will review permits. It will identify those permits that have the potential to significantly impact water quality. It will comment on those permits. It will do that in a very open and transparent manner. And in those cases where our comments aren't heeded, we won't hesitate to elevate or take whatever other actions are necessary. The statute actually allows us to elevate and then, if necessary, even object to permits being issued. It's a scientifically based, permit-by-permit job. We were saying nothing more, and we continue to say nothing more, other than that we will do our job. It is a very important job.
What can EPA do to educate Americans on environmental issues? With debates over things like a cap-and-trade emissions system, there's a lot of jargon to cut through.
Some of the biggest challenges that confront our country require people to change how they view the environment and how they view their role in contributing to environmental protection. People have to step up—to deal with everything from energy efficiency to the kinds of cars they buy to how they choose to live to where they choose to live. All those decisions require an educated and informed citizen. When it's doing its job, EPA is much more than a regulatory agency. It's a source of information; it's an educator; it is sometimes an advocate for greener technologies and sustainability. EPA has a high ratio of scientists who can be and should be cutting edge in the field, and the American people should expect no less from us.
What more can you do?
As EPA enters its 40th year, one of the things we are going to be doing is asking ourselves hard questions about what the next 40 years of EPA should be. One of the things we have to realize is that America has changed a lot. Young people of today get information in very different ways. The demographics of our country have changed. A lot of people live in the city, and they wonder how something called the EPA relates to their lives. We have to meet the American people where they are and speak to them in their language and make them understand how vitally important the environment is, not only to our planet but to their health and their family's health.
So, more social networking?
Well, EPA already has a presence, I know, on Facebook. I'm not sure about Twitter. Certainly, picking up on President Obama's success with new media is important. The first Earth Day was in many ways inspired by youth, so we want to make sure youth are embraced and see themselves in the next 40 years at EPA.