Environmental Justice: What's EPA's Plan?

Administrator Lisa P. Jackson says all people deserve clean communities. Here's what she's done.

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In a cavernous ballroom at Washington, D.C.'s convention center last Friday, nearly 2,000 guests gathered for the "Women Who Dare to Dream" luncheon honoring women of the civil rights movement. Originally planned as a lead-up to the postponed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial dedication, the glittering affair featured remarks and performances from civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams, poet Maya Angelou, farmworkers activist Dolores Huerta, singer Lalah Hathaway and Bernice King. Also on the program: Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, who spoke of how the civil rights movement informs her work.

"The struggle began fighting against obvious injustice -- 'Whites Only' signs and terrible racial violence. Today the struggle continues in the fight against things that are harder to see -- disparities in economic opportunity, achievement gaps in our schools, deeply ingrained institutional prejudices," Jackson said during her turn at the podium.

"The environmental movement took shape in much the same way, with people organizing against obvious issues like rivers so polluted they were literally catching on fire. After years of progress, we are fighting challenges that are harder to see -- invisible toxins in our water and air, or disparities between rich and poor in the burden of environmental degradation."

It is this challenge of upholding environmental justice -- the fair treatment of all communities when it comes to protection from environmental and health hazards -- that Jackson has taken on from her first day on the job in 2009. Yet when decades of decision making and neglect have left mostly poor and minority communities with an overwhelmingly disproportionate share of landfills, nuclear waste, factories, polluted air and contaminated water, it will take quite some time getting there.

Under Jackson's watch, the EPA has introduced new regulations to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants, factories and cars; added dozens of new federal regulators to crack down on industries that don't comply with environmental laws; and appointed a senior adviser for environmental justice. To help Americans understand how these issues affect their health, she and other EPA officials have also traveled around the country to forums and town halls, talking with and listening to communities that carry most of the burden.

Jackson briefly spoke to The Root about some of the results of her environmental-justice efforts. Here the Cabinet member and Princeton-trained chemical engineer shares new air and water initiatives; how she can't "wave a magic wand" for overnight change; and why we shouldn't count out the importance of organized, empowered communities.

The Root: You've framed your work as a civil rights issue, but it can be hard for people to get passionate about things like regulating carbon dioxide and testing the quality of streams and rivers. How would you rate your success in trying to get more African Americans to care and participate?

Lisa P. Jackson: I think we have made great progress, and we've done it at a time when people would like to argue that no one cares because they're worried about the economy. And yet we've seen community after community saying, "Of course we want jobs and economic prosperity, but we know what happens if someone's not there to protect our health, air and water at the same time."

It's been a two-way street. We are spending more time at EPA speaking to communities of color about these issues, but we are also spending more time listening and trying to incorporate their unique point of view into the issues we deal with.

TR: Last year you joined the Congressional Black Caucus for a multicity tour of communities burdened by environmental hazards, and promised to follow up with an action plan for each stop. What were some measurable changes that came as a result?