Will EPA’s ‘Environmental Justice’ Outlast Lisa Jackson?

As head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson was explicit about protecting people of color and low income communities from excess pollution and waste. This made her unpopular in some corners. Will her EJ legacy survive her exit?

By Brentin Mock Mar 14, 2013

Lisa Jackson–the Environmental Protection Agency’s first black administrator and its loudest trumpet for environmental justice–unceremoniously left her post in mid-February. Those who deeply value Jackson’s stated commitment to protecting people of color say her successor will have big shoes to follow. "So often our policy makers and administrators make decisions without enough awareness of the consequences inflicted on communities outside their own, particularly those without traditional sources of power," says Sarah Hope, executive director of the Alliance for Climate Education. "We can do much better. Lisa Jackson did." Appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009, Jackson made clear from jump that the agency’s priority would be ensuring that people of color and low-income neighborhoods aren’t disproportionately burdened with waste and pollution. With that agenda, her EPA raised car and truck fuel standards, making it uncool and soon unlawful for car companies to create Hummer-esque gas guzzlers. To mitigate climate change, Jackson’s EPA also exercised its U.S. Supreme Court-ordained authority to stem greenhouse gas emissions. Predictably, right-wing politicians and business heads targeted her early and often. Last year, Republican Congressmen and presidential candidates even went as far as to suggest shuttering the EPA altogether. "Part of Lisa Jackson’s legacy is the fear she put in the executives of polluting companies," says Monique Harden, co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights. "She single-handedly re-directed the EPA from playing footsie with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce back to the job of ensuring environmental justice for communities of color and poor communities harmed by hazardous industrial operations." Jackson may have been too tough. Right when the EPA chief was prepared to throw down the gauntlet on smog emissions–one of the leading causes of respiratory problems in urban environments–Obama reeled her in, blocking the smog regulations. The move was largely interpreted as a capitulation to big polluting businesses and their conservative, all-free-market-everything representatives in Congress. In early March, Obama announced Jackson’s replacement, Gina McCarthy, director of EPA’s Office for Air and Radiation. McCarthy worked closely with Jackson to push tough regulations on toxic emissions like mercury and ozone. If she’s confirmed by the Senate, it’s expected that she’ll continue challenging air polluters. Before departing, Jackson called [environmental justice the "unfinished business](http://blog.epa.gov/ej/2013/02/reducing-pollution-for-all-american-families/) of the environmental movement," and said she was "confident that it will continue long after I depart." For that to happen, there are six major elements of Jackson’s EJ legacy that her successor will have to continue and improve upon. She (or he) will have to: **1. Actually champion EJ.** ‘Environmental justice’ as a concept and strategy was conceived by grassroots, civil rights activists. For it to work in the federal government, there needs to be an official of power and influence there advocating–clearly–on behalf of marginalized communities and people of color. Consider the history: EJ became an official of the EPA in 1992 when President George H. W. Bush authorized the creation of the Office of Environmental Equity. He did so under intense pressure from organizers such as Hazel Johnson, Peggy Shepard and Robert Bullard. Two years later, President Bill Clinton updated the name to the Office of Environmental Justice and signed an executive order stating that all federal departments needed to consider EJ impacts in their decisions. So, if the Department of Transportation wanted to create a new highway, it would need to study whether that plan would overly burden black, Latino or poor communities that lay in its path. But in its first official season with the EPA, the role of ‘environmental justice’ in the agency was akin to Sondra Huxtable’s at the start of "The Cosby Show": Barely referenced and racially ambiguous. Then, in President George W. Bush’s hands, EJ was Denise Huxtable–dropped from the big show altogether. Lisa Jackson brought ‘environmental justice’ back to the EPA. Prior to her tenure, the agency did about two EJ analyses of its rule-making per year; since 2010, EPA has conducted about 20 annually. As Bullard, a movement architect and author of "The Wrong Complexion for Protection" puts it, Jackson brought EJ "out of the shadows, after being closeted for over a decade." **2. Follow Plan EJ 2014.** February 2014 is the 20th anniversary of Clinton’s EJ executive order. In preparation, Jackson’s staff produced ["Plan EJ 2014,"](http://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/plan-ej/) a strategy document or "roadmap" for how the federal government can better integrate EJ into their planning. A progress report on the plan was released last month showing that EPA is hitting its markers, but to keep protection of communities of color prominent, the next agency head must ensure that plan is carried to full realization. **3. Be transparent and involve the community.** One thing the federal government has been miserable at is including communities in decision making. Jackson brought community stakeholders to the table. For instance, as chair of Obama’s task force on restoring the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil disaster, Jackson made virtually every stage of their work open to the public, often to the chagrin of government officials who like to work without the complications of actually responding to people. The next EPA administrator should continue to keep government responsive.   **4. Comply with the Civil Rights Act.** A few words describe how EPA has handled civil rights violations: Tawdry. Despicable. Ratchet. Poor enforcement of the Civil Rights Act Title VI has been, by far, the EPA’s biggest blemish. It has largely failed to resolve legal complaints from communities that allege racial discrimination in how polluting companies operate and how environmental policies are applied. EPA has let these complaints linger for years and under Jackson things didn’t improve. Plan EJ 2014 calls for a more muscular EPA Office of Civil Rights and the end to the complaint backlog. The plan also calls for a guidebook that spells out precisely how the agency should enforce civil rights statutes. That book was [completed last year.](http://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/resources/policy/plan-ej-2014/plan-ej-2011-09.pdf) All the EPA has to do is use it. **5. Continue fighting asthma.** As a mother of a child with asthma, Jackson made this battle personal. Her campaign against the disease was one of the clearest examples of someone within the Obama administration directly addressing racial disparities and placing a specific focus on black kids. Given McCarthy’s background in air pollution control, asthma will certainly remain a priority. But her EPA can’t obscure the disparate impact on children of color. **6. Help communities of color navigate the Keystone XL pipeline.** The off-again, on-again saga surrounding [this pipeline](http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/bd4379a92ceceeac8525735900400c27/cdb7b74bde1853c385257a0f004b617c!OpenDocument), which would transport oil from dirty tar sands compounds in Canada to the Gulf Coast, has become a focus for environmentalists and climate justice advocates. The project, which many believe will trigger a climate-change doomsday scenario, [was slowed once ](http://www.politico.com/story/2013/03/four-factors-that-could-turn-the-fate-of-keystone-88537_Page2.html] –)by the EPA, for further risk assessment. Ultimately, it’s up to the State Department to green- or red-light the pipeline, but EPA should have a lot to say about that decision. If State does approve it, Jackson’s successor must help ensure that EJ communities have the highest standard of protection available. In Jackson departure, EJ just lost its biggest play-caller, no doubt. And her legacy is "just the foundation," says Kari Fulton, director for the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative. "We still have so much further to go and we need to get there rather quickly. Point blank–whoever’s next better be ready for the limelight, the shade and the reality that EPA cannot be a background agency anymore."