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Why I’ll miss Lisa Jackson (and you should too)

Lisa JacksonBy Andy Igrejas, Campaign Director

As you may have heard, Lisa Jackson has announced that she
is stepping down as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. No
one can blame her. It’s an increasingly thankless job. But I’m going to miss
her and you should too, as the storminess of her tenure has implications for
public health and safety in America that should worry us all.

I’m not prone to swooning for any public figure, but I found
Jackson to be a bracing, refreshing and rare presence in Washington. She
combined complete mastery of the vast subject matter of the EPA with candor,
confidence, and the down-to-earth style of a working mom who can only make time
for so much nonsense. Most importantly, while the climate change debate
dominated headlines, Jackson’s clear agenda for the agency was much more basic
and vital: restoring EPA to its historic role as the premier public health
agency in the world.

Nevertheless, her difficulty in achieving that agenda is a
clear a sign of America’s decline. For at least two generations, America led
the world in establishing health, safety and environmental standards. Most
Americans take for granted that the government is taking care of basic things
like clean air and water, safe products (including chemicals), safe food, and
safe workplaces, but that is increasingly untrue
The European Union now sets the standard for the world in many of these areas,
certainly around chemicals. And other major industrial nations – South Korea,
Japan, Canada- are beginning to pass us by as well.  The developing world looks to these countries, not the US,
for leadership.

The reason is simple, if depressing: political corruption.
Not the illegal kind that politicians go to jail for- but the legal kind that
is practiced with ever increasing shamelessness and impunity in Washington.
Chemical companies, for example, don’t want their products regulated, whether
it’s restrictions, testing or disclosure. They gin up their favorite
Congressmen to jump on EPA at each step. Their lavish campaign spending, newly unfettered by the
Supreme Court, is geared toward this goal. (Common Cause gathered all the details
here.) They also work the White
House to block EPA activities
, no matter how routine. The Obama White House
has been notably receptive to this pressure, effectively blocking Jackson’s
attempts to use existing law to regulate chemicals. (My colleague Richard
Denison’s many blogs on the subject can be found here.)

But it’s even worse than that. The impunity has grown such that now Congress is used quite
openly (again by the chemical industry, especially) to attack not only the EPA
but even basic government science. Dow Chemical led a campaign to stop
the Report on Carcinogens
, a program run by the National Institute of Health, because it dared to characterize the cancer-causing
potential of styrene and formaldehyde after exhaustive scientific peer-review.
They have even convinced members of Congress to threaten a private sector
initiative, the US
Green Building Council
as punishment for introducing a safer chemical
component to its popular LEED “green building” standard. (The threat is that
federal buildings would no longer use the standard.)

So look how far we’ve fallen: from the EPA setting the
global standard, to members of Congress trying to strangle even a private
sector initiative pursuing health and safety in the building industry because
it angers companies like Dow.

Lisa Jackson stood tall against these kinds of attack and
she should be proud. She won some important fights, most notably in air pollution, and
lost others. She stood up for science and public health against ignorance and
corruption. I can only imagine it was exhausting. She’s earned the right to
step down with our appreciation (though I hope she opts for something more “in
the arena” than becoming the President of Princeton.)

But the bigger point is that what she fought to make ordinary
again- implementing common-sense health protections for the broad public remains
extraordinary, if not endangered, and what used to be extraordinary -in its
corruption and audacity- is now routine.

I’ll leave you with a quote that sums up Jackson’s simple,
yet effective message:

“If our students are getting
sick because we’ve built schools in polluted areas, they are going to fall behind.
The poor who get sick because of toxins in their neighborhoods are the same people
who typically seek treatment in emergency rooms. That drives up health care costs
for everyone. And environmental health issues hold back economic growth. Let me
repeat that, because there are a lot of people who think that we can’t address these
issues and strengthen our economy. In fact, we must address these issues to strengthen
our economy. Environmental health issues hold back economic growth.”

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson at the American Public
Health Association, November 8, 2009