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
Hi Jean and Rebecca - we too are confident that public awareness and pressure will be the key to advancing our goals of safer chemicals and healthy families. If there is one very powerful tool we have in the U.S. it's the power of grassroots organizing. Thanks for being part of this growing movement.Posted by: Safer Chemicals Healthy Families | Jan 24, 2013 4:08:46 PM
All this is very depressing, albeit true. North America is subject to the tyranny of the chemical industry who unfortunately rule supreme, to the deteriment of the citizens' health. Let us hope that this will not last forever, that the tyranny will be increasingly unmasked and condemned by the citizens at large. The attitude of the White House to this issue is most unfortunate. Very depressing!Posted by: K. Jean Cottam | Jan 10, 2013 6:02:07 PM
I will miss her too! Great blog Andy - it's rare to have leaders that actually stand up for the public, our air, water and basic health needs. I hope the replacement administrator can fill her shoes. And really disappointing to hear about the Obama White House. Why won't they stand up to the chemical companies?Posted by: Rebecca | Jan 10, 2013 2:50:13 PM