Another historic oath of office was taken on Tuesday, when Lisa P. Jackson was sworn in as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. A Princeton-educated chemical engineer who previously served as commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Jackson is the first African-American to lead the EPA. At a press conference earlier this week, she stood at the front of the White House’s East Room as President Obama signed his first environmental policies, which she also helped design. ESSENCE.com met Jackson at her Washington office to discuss these newly instated orders, critics who slammed her appointment, and her message to Black America on why we must take a bigger part in the green movement.
ESSENCE.COM: Congratulations on being sworn in yesterday. How does it feel to officially be the EPA administrator?
LISA P. JACKSON: It really just hit me at the swearing-in. It is a feeling of extraordinary responsibility when you think about ensuring the implementation of laws that are, at the heart, geared toward the protection of human health and the environment. It’s an awesome responsibility. So I am honored, but you don’t have a lot of time to sit around feeling honored. You have to move on and get the job done.
ESSENCE.COM: On Monday President Obama signed two executive orders, one of which enforces strict emissions standards on automobile companies. The policy has been criticized as putting a burden on auto companies at a time when they’re struggling to stay afloat. Is it irresponsible to put air pollution ahead of the dire needs of the auto industry?
JACKSON: I would frame it differently. I would say that it is a false choice, and the President has said this, it’s a false choice to think you have to choose one or the other-a clean environment, a child without asthma and less smog versus a thriving auto industry. If we’re going to have a thriving auto industry in this country, it’s got to recognize that automobiles are, in many states, almost half of the air pollution problem. They’re a huge contributor to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, and if we’re going to build a vibrant sustainable industry, we have to address that.
ESSENCE.COM: The executive orders signed on Monday also allow 14 states to regulate tailpipe emissions. None of this resonated much among African-Americans. Can you explain to the Black community how these issues affect them in particular?
JACKSON: For a long time, I think the Black community thought that environmentalism is something that you worry about after some of the more pressing issues that face our community, whether it be racial prejudice or unemployment or housing or other issues that tend to be more urban-focused. But I think there is an increasing realization, and the environmental justice movement has known this for a long time, that the issues of the urban community include the environment, and that environmental protection is also community, neighborhood and family protection. The asthma rates among African-American children, for example, are very high. We need to, as a people, become more cognizant of the connection between the environment and our health, and also the environment and our economy. The future economy that may present you with getting a job may well be a green economy. Black people need to claim that economy, and realize that the opportunities for jobs are going to be in energy efficiency, in fuel efficiency, in renewable power. You have to start to move that way in the interest you show.
ESSENCE.COM: You mentioned environmental justice. The practice of locating polluting industries in minority communities—and the consequent health impacts—is well documented. African-Americans are almost 80 percent more likely than White Americans to live in neighborhoods near hazardous industrial pollution sites. Yet the EPA has failed to implement policy that specifically protects communities of color. As EPA administrator, is the issue of environmental justice one that you plan to address?
JACKSON: It is. I think the first thing to do is to elevate the issue, to make it something that overlays all the work of this agency. And second, a lot times the justice issues aren’t just things in EPA, but they may have to do with the citing of a road that bisects a community, so that’s a Department of Transportation issue. Or it could have to do with the Department of Labor and green job training, ensuring that those funds for training flow to communities of color. Those are issues that I’m particularly well-equipped to deal with. I grew up in an urban environment; I’m a city girl; and I’m an African-American woman. Those are all things that make me who I am, and I bring that to this job. I’m looking forward to making sure that this agency is open to reaching out to those constituencies so they feel empowered to advocate for themselves.
ESSENCE.COM: So, once the issue has been elevated within the EPA, are there specific efforts that you will make to reduce the disproportionate levels of pollution in communities of color?
JACKSON: I would be wrong to sit here and outline an agenda for you. In short order, we will elevate the program. We will put it in a place with managers who have experience working with that community. I hope you’ll find that the political staff that we bring in is diverse, which is very important. I’m the first African-American administrator, but I am far from the only Black environmental professional. There are Hispanic professionals, American Indians who have been dealing with these issues. That’s the first thing, to make sure my senior staff reflects the diversity of opinions on the issues that are discussed in the room, especially when it comes to hazardous waste sites and air pollution.
ESSENCE.COM: While your appointment to lead the EPA has been praised by many environmental organizations, a group called the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility denounced it with complaints that you failed to clean up toxic waste sites when you headed to New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection. What is your response to these critics?
JACKSON: No one’s perfect, and the environment is a tough, tough issue. I’m really proud of my record in New Jersey, and I felt that many of the things that folks said are sort of nitpicking. They went out of their way to find something that they didn’t like, and looked over a whole bunch of extraordinary things that we did. We have probably, along with California, some of the toughest global warming laws in the county. We have 600-plus miles of waterways upgraded, so to criticize me for the 200 miles that weren’t means you have to look over the 600 miles that were. We had tough chemical security laws. We did a lot of work in New Jersey to try to be progressive and thoughtful about the environment. I’m looking forward to establishing a legacy that shows that all the concerns that were expressed—by one group, by the way—were misguided at best. I think that’s going to happen sooner, not later.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you have any thoughts on what the next four years are going to be like for our country under President Obama?
JACKSON: I can tell you what I’ve seen so far from him as a boss, which is that he’s determined and focused on managing government in a way that serves people and gets results. I’m looking forward to a progressive and forward-thinking next four years—actually, eight years—that will not only elevate the issues I care about for the environment, but elevate our country as a leader on issues that we all care about. First we have to deal with the economy and make sure that the hard times ahead don’t sap our spirit. But the President has said that we’re going to face these challenges and we’re going to meet them, and that’s how I feel about the environmental challenges we face as well.