PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center
Philadelphia Inquirer
Sandy Bauers


When Lisa P. Jackson took the stage at a national brownfields conference in Philadelphia on Monday, she said she wished all her detractors could be there to hear how restoring polluted industrial sites makes good business sense.

An hour later, when she participated in a panel at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia about new rules limiting emissions of mercury and other poisons from U.S. power plants, she spoke of how it would not only prevent thousands of premature deaths and illnesses a year, but would also support thousands of jobs in the construction and utility industries.

"These are very good jobs," she said. "They're labor-intensive jobs. And you know what you can't do with them? You can't ship them overseas, because our power plants are here."

Health and jobs. Health and jobs. It's almost a mantra for Jackson, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's administrator.

Now two years into the job, Jackson is a beleaguered cabinet member who draws detractors - and supporters - wherever she goes.

In Congress, she has been grilled, challenged, countered, and debated as new Republican legislators contend that she and the agency are overreaching their purview.

"You will hear people use words like cutting and defunding, and making bold claims about so-called EPA power grabs," she said. Indeed, "you may have heard that earlier this year, someone in Congress offered me my very own parking space, because I've come in to testify so often."

Perhaps the most volatile issue is whether the EPA should regulate greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases that most scientists say are causing climate change.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) is a co-sponsor of an energy bill that would prevent the EPA from imposing an energy tax on greenhouse gases. He says the bill would help lower energy prices.

"We cannot allow the EPA to hold Pennsylvania's economy hostage," he said in a statement.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Bill Kovacs said it was "clear that the Clean Air Act was never intended to [give the agency authority to] regulate greenhouse gases."

"It's a decision for Congress to make," said Kovacs, senior vice president of environment, technology, and regulatory affairs for the chamber. "Not a bureaucratic regulatory agency."

He also contended that historically, the EPA proposed only three to five major "rules" - or sets of regulations - a year. This year, he said, Jackson's EPA is anticipated to propose more than two dozen, with nearly half of them already issued.

That's "partly because she inherited a mess from her predecessors," countered Frank O'Donnell, president of the national advocacy group Clean Air Watch in Washington. "A large percentage of the air rules are redos of rules the Bush administration botched in its quest to be industry-friendly."

The agency "has just fallen into the right-wing mantra of government being too big," he said. "The EPA is suffering as a result of the health-care legislation and the fire that it lit in the tea party and elsewhere. In a lot of parts of the country, you don't hear the EPA used without the prior epithet job-killing."

David Masur, director of PennEnvironment, which hosted the mercury panel at Children's Hospital, said he thought that at the root of the debate were special interests holding sway with newly elected officials

"Why we see this now is the political lay of the land has changed, and big polluters are cashing in," he said. Congressional conservatives are "standing up for the powerful polluters instead of the kids with asthma and old people who can't go outside on hot summer days."

Jackson, 49, a chemical engineer with a master's degree from Princeton University, was the secretary of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection before joining the Obama administration.

She also spent 16 years with the EPA previously, overseeing the cleanup of hazardous waste sites under the Superfund program.

In a way, she's not surprised at the current conflict.

"We're doing our job," she said. "I think EPA is getting attention because we are using science to follow the law. And that's long overdue."

She said that whether the rules are about mercury or ozone or clean water, "those are the issues that EPA should be speaking on. It means that we're relevant. It means that every once in a while, the American people have to remember that we have insisted as a nation on strong environmental protection and we don't want to go backwards."

She praised the agency's work not just on new regulations, but on the Chesapeake Bay, the BP oil spill, and its current radiation monitoring of the nation's rainwater, drinking water and milk "to assure Americans that the horrible tragedy in Japan is not affecting them and their families."

In the coming-on-strong department, Jackson also announced Monday that possibly within months, the agency would propose standards to deal with oil and natural-gas drilling, particularly their air emissions.

In rural Wyoming, where drilling is widespread, she said, officials were surprised to learn that levels of smog rivaled those in Los Angeles.

She said states "have a huge role to play in that planning process. No state can afford to look the other way."

In Pennsylvania, nearly 3,000 wells have been drilled, and Gov. Corbett is an industry ally, opposing a severance tax. A top official of the Department of Environmental Protection recently ordered that all violations and enforcement actions be approved by the DEP secretary.

Jackson, whose regional administrator, Shawn Garvin, recently sent a strongly worded letter to the Pennsylvania DEP urging greater scrutiny of the industry, said, "I would encourage the State of Pennsylvania to be looking at aggressively overseeing" the industry.

The EPA is expected to bring out another major rule this summer addressing the downwind transport of pollutants from power plants. It is sure to raise more criticism and debate.

But in Philadelphia at the brownfields and mercury events on Monday, Jackson was among her fans.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.), who introduced Jackson at the Children's Hospital panel, said that "some members of Congress have made it their mission to interject themselves, to be a roadblock in the work of the administration, but she is doing a great job. I know in my talks with the president there is no cabinet administrator that he has appointed that he is prouder of."

During a question-and-answer period, audience members thanked Jackson for the work she and her agency were doing.

"You've put your finger in the dike," said a Pennsylvania woman who said she was asthmatic. "I know you've gotten a lot of backlash you don't deserve."

Earlier, at the brownfields conference, Jackson received a standing ovation.

And that was just for coming on stage, before she had said a word.