The lauded EPA chief departs an agency that has reasserted its regulatory authority. But her successor faces major challenges
As Lisa Jackson gets ready to step down as head of the EPA shortly after the president’s inauguration later this month, she is being hailed by environmentalists for pushing through the toughest new air and water pollution rules in over two decades, and speaking out on climate change in an administration that has largely avoided confronting the issue head-on.
Jackson is admired even by some of her critics. Republican James M Inhofe of Oklahoma, a leading Senate opponent of environmental legislation, referred to the charming Jackson as “my favorite bureaucrat”.
But not everybody is sad to see the EPA administrator go. During the recent election campaign, Mitt Romney called for Jackson’s resignation, and some Republicans in Congress have accused her of waging a “war on coal“. Jackson’s EPA drafted regulations that limit mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. She also initiated a sweeping agency review of the impact of mountaintop removal in states like West Virginia and Kentucky, a practice that dumps raw mining waste into wetlands and streams.
Jackson, the nation’s first black EPA chief, grew up as the child of a postal worker in New Orleans. As a Louisiana native, she was the public face of the administration’s responses to the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf in 2010, hosting town meetings throughout the region to reassure residents of the government’s support.
Jackson often spoke about the fact that the nation’s poor frequently live in industrial zones where they suffer disproportionally from pollution of the air and water. The health impacts of pollution hit close to home for Jackson. She spoke publicly of the anguish she felt watching her infant son suffer from asthma, an illness associated with high levels of particulates in the air.
In a phone interview, Tom “Smitty” Smith, the Texas director of Public Citizen, told me that Jackson was the first EPA administrator in three decades to seek out the views of local environmentalists during her trips to Texas, and not just politicians and representatives of the oil industry. As a result of these meetings, Jackson closed loopholes in the permitting process which had allowed refineries on what Smith calls “the cancer coast” between Port Arthur and Corpus Christi to employ inferior pollution control technologies.