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New Jersey’s Lisa Jackson to head EPA

By Robert Cowin
December 17, 2008
File under: Cabinet, Environmental Policy


What is the deal with EPA Directors being from New Jersey?  Is it a prerequisite or something?  We had Christie Todd Whitman (what a nightmare), and now we have Lisa Jackson.  Both were former heads of the New Jersey EPA, and while I would never compare Jackson’s record to Whitman’s, it’s clear that many New Jersey environmental groups regard her as being too lenient on polluters.  Having lived in and worked on environmental issues in New Jersey, let me say that when it comes to issues like climate change the State of New Jersey has its act together, but when it comes to issues like toxics, New Jersey is the poster child for ineptitude.  New Jersey has way too many untreated superfund sites, and many feel not enough was done to fix the problem under Jackson’s watch.

Lisa Jackson is currently the Chief of Staff for Governor John Corzine, and has held almost every position of note in the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.  Her career speaks to a lifetime of work on environmental issues, and while the State of New Jersey has made some good progress in that regard, it’s not a place where ecological sensitivity trumps industry, nor has it ever been.  Perhaps you’ve heard the jokes about New Jersey’s toxic reputation.  Unfortunately, I can’t say that they are unwarranted.

Jackson has on several occasions mentioned the plight of poor people who are forced to bare the brunt of dangerous health issues because they can’t afford to live in places free from environmental hazards, and yet, take a train to Newark on a windy day.  Take a deep breath, and take a strong whiff, and tell me that New Jersey air quality isn’t still a huge problem for those who live there.  What has she done to improve the quality of life for the people she claims to be fighting for?  Why, for example, have only 22 of the 115 toxic superfund sites been cleaned up?  Clearly it’s not fair to blame Jackson for all the environmental shortcomings of the State, but one cannot properly evaluate her career without also measuring New Jersey’s environmental progress considering the many prominent roles she has played in formulating New Jersey environmental policy.

She has a Masters in chemical engineering from Princeton University and her intellect is not in doubt.  But why does it have to be a government insider?  Why does it have to be an establishment candidate?  Why not appoint a person from one of the many quality environmental non-profit organizations around the country?  My point being, Jackson is far from a trailblazer for the environment, and with all the rolling back of important environmental standards during the Bush administration, the American people need a strong leader to improve things environmentally.  They need an EPA director who is strong on air quality, strong on marine conservation, strong on toxic dumping; not just someone who is strong on climate change.

Climate change is by far the most important issue facing us today, and on this point, Jackson is an excellent choice.  She helped pass the Global Warming Response Act, which dramatically cuts greenhouse gas emissions, and she obviously cares deeply about the issue.  But I have mixed feelings about the choice of Jackson.  I would like to see someone who is strong on a variety of environmental issues, and someone who has not spent their life in government trying to mediate compromise between industry and environmental non-profits.  It’s time to have an advocate for environmental NGOs at the helm of the EPA.  The host of environmental issues facing us today is too serious, and frankly, we’ve waited far too long.

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