Since taking over the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa P. Jackson has been on a mission: clean air, clean water and a strong green economy in every American community. Blacks, in particular, she says, need to understand the connection between the environment and their daily health, and the adverse impact living around contaminants, whether they be lead paint or the filthy abandoned buildings and lots known as brownfields. Jackson spoke with BET.com about her efforts to ensure that African-Americans are getting the information they need so their communities can benefit from her agency’s environmental clean-up efforts, including green jobs.
BET.com: What are some of the biggest environmental challenges you’ve faced as EPA administrator?
Lisa Jackson: There are a number of standards that needed to be updated under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act that really provide fundamental protections for the American people. We’ve been quietly attacking and getting rid of that backload of rulemaking, but not without running into special interests and lobbyists for polluters who are trying to stop us.
Probably the thing closest to my heart is the work we’re doing on expanding the conversation on the environment and environmental justice. I’m the first African-American to run EPA and it provides a real opportunity to bring home to all communities that clean air and water aren’t the purview of the very wealthy; they’re something all Americans need and deserve and should insist on.
What are some of your plans for the upcoming year?
We’re initiating a launch of a partnership with faith-based groups across the country to educate people about the environment and public health protections. It’s an opportunity to work with communities on the issues that they’re concerned about, whether that’s energy efficiency or jobs in a clean energy economy. Or something really important, like asthma and explaining to people how it’s connected to air pollution and what their government is doing and has done to improve air quality and what needs to happen in the future to make it even better.
Do you think that environmental justice is still a very pervasive issue in Black communities?
Absolutely. The idea of environmental justice is two-fold. It’s looking back and realizing that for whatever reasons—sometimes historic racism, sometimes poverty—there are communities in this country that have the disproportionate share of impacts. It’s also looking forward. How do we ensure that those communities get economic opportunities, like jobs, and at the same time have cleaner air.
What are some of the more noted environmental accomplishments and disappointments in Black communities in the last year?
We’ve proposed the first-ever mercury and air toxic standards in our country that primarily affect power plants that burn coal. They set tough standards to reduce the amount of mercury, which is poison for children’s developing brains, and other contaminants like arsenic, chromium and acid gasses. That could save an estimated 17,000 premature deaths every year once it’s implemented. We’ve also proposed the strictest standards for smog, which is a direct cause of asthma attacks on hot summer days and will be finalizing them in July.
Do you think that African-Americans are as aware as they should be of environmental inequities?
I think it’s changing but we still have a challenge to make sure that environmental challenges aren’t on the very bottom of their list. We haven’t always done a good job of making a connection between the environment and our daily health.
How does one fight some of the misconceptions of what it means to be “green?”
Part of our job is to educate. It’s one thing to have government talk to you about being green. What about a neighbor who tells you what it’s like to live with asthma or how their child suffered because of lead poisoning or may be having developmental issues that might be tracked to the environment and the horrible fear of not knowing whether something [they were exposed to] before birth might cause problems later? When we as a community talk to each other we learn a lot and dispel myths.
There’s lots of talk about a green economy and green jobs, but little information about how to get those jobs. What are some of the entry- and mid-level points?
Community colleges are a great linkage point for young people, but also for people seeking retraining. They offer courses on everything from environmental energy auditing to how to repair and care for pollution technology. Young people understand the importance of green technology. They see it as the jobs of the future.
More than one million jobs will have to be filled to help power utilities comply with the Clean Air Act. What and where will those jobs be?
A recent study by the University of Massachusetts and Ceres estimated that close to 1.5 million jobs will be needed just to implement two requirements over the next several years. They are jobs that range from the technician all the way up to the engineer level and across the country. They’ll be centered in places where there are old dirty power plants that need to be cleaned up, but in some cases we’ll see new power plants being built to modernize and reduce pollution coming from our utility sector.
(Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)