What Garden State? EPA Head Lisa Jackson Draws Mixed Reviews from the Environmental Community

President Barack Obama drew plenty of praise when he announced that Lisa Jackson, New Jersey’s environmental chief, was his choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But her critics are equally vocal, and they charge that her tenure was marked by inaction in cleaning up the Garden State’s many festering toxic waste dumps.

One of Jackson’s strongest supporters is Dena Mottola Jaborska, executive director of Environment New Jersey. “I worked with her closely on global warming policy, and on clean water and land use as well,” Jaborska says. “In 2006 and 2007 we collaborated on implementing a statewide cap on greenhouse gas emissions. Lisa played a big role in convincing the governor to sign the executive order, and she helped shepherd the issue through the legislature.”

Jaborska also credits Jackson for toughening the cap-and-trade provisions of New Jersey’s regional greenhouse gas alliance with nine other states. “Without an agreement that the polluters would pay for the credits, it would have been toothless and a debacle similar to what happened with cap-and-trade in Europe,” she says.

Under Jackson, the state set 50 long-term goals for reducing climate emissions, but some of them are rather ambitious, including a call for a coal plant moratorium (unless all carbon is sequestered), a plan to electrify all state transportation by 2050, and a 100% renewable energy grid by 2050.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, praises Jackson for “putting together one of strongest state programs to protect people from flooding. And,” he says, “she protected 300,000 acres…against development.”

Policies without Teeth

Lisa Jackson

Jackson’s critics zero in on her alleged failures related to toxic waste cleanup, and say much of her global warming work looks good on paper but lacks enforcement provisions.

One former DEP official, who asked not to be named, claims that Jackson left the agency adrift. “She turned out to be terribly political,” says the official, “and spent a lot of her time trying to make the governor look good.”

Last summer, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General issued a scathing report charging that New Jersey had failed to aggressively enforce toxic waste cleanup and that federal intervention was needed. Some cleanups were more than 20 years old, the report said. In one case, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a badly contaminated mercury thermometer factory in Franklinville that had been a Superfund site for 11 years was leased for use as the Kiddie Kollege day care center. According to PEER, the state had taken the factory off its “Known Contaminated Sites List.” More than 30 children were reportedly exposed to mercury emissions (and 20 were tested with high levels) before the DEP closed the center in 2006, after it had been in operation for two years.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, calls Jackson’s global warming work “long on aspiration and short on implementation.” Ruch is also very critical of Jackson on toxic cleanup, saying, “When the Bush EPA has to step in to clean up your problems, it’s very late in the day.”

In Washington, it’s possible Jackson will be faced with a reality not unlike that she encountered in New Jersey. Global warming policy is under the jurisdiction of the veteran Carol Browner, whose newly created title is White House coordinator of energy and climate policy. Jackson’s bailiwick, then, is likely to be prosaic pollution cleanups, and she”ll be working for an environmentally conscious chief executive whose tight budgets may preclude extensive funding. “There’s not likely to be a huge implementation of new dollars,” says Ruch.