Lisa JacksonPhoto illustration by Tom Twigg / GristLisa Jackson has a flair for the unexpected. At our interview, she wore a saucy pink suit and pointy pumps—not typical attire for the nation’s most powerful authority on the environment. She is joyous and quick to laugh, as demonstrated during her recent appearance on The Daily Show — a first for a Washington eco-wonk.

Jackson made news during her first few months as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency by issuing an initial finding that greenhouse gases jeopardize public health and welfare — a move she described to Grist as part of a “solemn responsibility” to follow through on a directive from the Supreme Court. This finding, when finalized, will enable the EPA to directly regulate greenhouse gases from all sources, giving the agency more power and purview than ever before.

Formerly an EPA employee for 16 years, Jackson served as commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection from 2006 to 2008 under Gov. Jon Corzine (D), where she won praise from enviros for her work on climate change and clean water and criticism for a sluggish toxic cleanup program.  Now back at the EPA, she is the first African American to head up the agency.

I met with Jackson at EPA headquarters to get her take on Obama’s “green Cabinet,” the scourge of mountaintop removal, and the fight against climate change.

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Q. You’ve served almost half a year as EPA administrator. What’s the best part about your job?

A. The best part is being a part of President Obama’s administration. It’s starting to hit me — the real change in attitude about the environment, the fact that the president sees the environment as a crucial step towards our economic recovery. He sees clean energy as part of the solution. So I have a boss and a bunch of colleagues in the Cabinet who actually value our role, even though we certainly have moments where we have spirited discussions and disagreements over how to get something done. But at its heart, we’re talking about a policy team that really works together to move our country forward on clean energy and addressing climate change.

Q. What’s the hardest part?

A. We work hard. President Obama expects from us a level of work that means that because we have such a broad agenda here at EPA, we knew we had to come out swinging. We wanted to set a high standard. Our challenge now is to make sure that, as we have announced new positions — whether it’s dependence on science, transparency, the law — that we actually follow through and that change is felt throughout the organization.

Q. You’re a key member of the so-called “green team,” which we sometimes hear in environmental circles referred to as the “dream team.” Is that an actual team?

A. We started to use the term “green Cabinet”; it pops up from time to time on my schedule and I really like that. It’s a large team; we meet at least monthly. It includes transportation and agriculture and commerce and labor and the president’s office of energy and climate change — that’s Carol Browner and Nancy Sutley over at [the Council on Environmental Quality] and John Holdren at [the Office of Science & Technology Policy] and Shaun Donovan at [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] and Secretary Vilsack over at Agriculture and Secretary Chu at the Department of Energy and Secretary Salazar over at Interior. What a group, to sit around and really try to find ways to break down the silos that have traditionally stymied federal policymaking and action.

Just [recently] we did a hearing on smart growth, and to sit next to the secretary of transportation and hear him talking about the importance of thinking smartly about land-use planning as part of the transportation bill, was just extraordinary messaging. And we were with Secretary Donovan from HUD; he’s been quite an advocate as well.

Q. [Last week] the Obama administration released a report on climate impacts across the country. What was the EPA’s role in this report and what is its significance?

A. We have a draft finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare, so the science that went into that finding is a lot of the same science that is built upon in the report. Information that we have, and also that [the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration] collects in the National Weather Service, and other scientists — lots of information they’ve synthesized to paint this picture of how climate will impact our country.

Q. Are you waiting to see what Congress will do before you make a move on regulating greenhouse gasses?

A. I’d like to remind people that EPA had a legal obligation given to us by the Supreme Court almost two years ago to basically address greenhouse gases in the context of the Clean Air Act. The Clean Air Act says that EPA has authority if greenhouse gases are a criteria pollutant—meaning they endanger public health and/or welfare—and I thought it was just extremely important that rather than play any kind of gamesmanship we just speak to that one issue.

I would like to see new legislation. The president has called for new energy and climate legislation. It’s extremely important for our country, including the discussions that are happening in Congress right now amongst all of the different interests that have to be part of the energy solution that the president wants.  That being said, I thought it was a solemn responsibility that I had as administrator of the EPA to follow the law and do what the Supreme Court said. And certainly if we find that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare, that requires EPA to act from a regulatory standpoint.

And of course we have to watch Congress because if law passes that takes away that authority or changes it in some way, we have to be ready for that.

Q. The Waxman-Markey climate bill would limit the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Would this tie your hands?

A. I think the drafters have rightfully said, “Listen, if we’re going to pass a new law specifically to address climate change, we also realize that the Clean Air Act is out there and provides uncertainty if we have a law that compels a cap-and-trade program.” Those discussions are ongoing; certainly states have had a lot to say about it. And I think our position is that right now we’re going to continue to carry out our responsibilities to the American people. That means closing the comment period on the endangerment finding, and that closes June 23. That means moving and working with [the Department of Transportation] and the state of California on auto regulations.

Q. In the lead-up to international climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December, other countries are watching what we do. Do you think it will inhibit our ability to lead at Copenhagen if we don’t have a domestic climate policy in place?

A. This is truly one of those situations where, as a globe, we have to come up with a solution. A lot of great work was done at Kyoto, a lot of great work was done in Bali. It’s been and continues to be a very important and very vigorous dialogue. Led by Todd Stern over at the State Department, we’ve certainly been playing a lot of a supporting role in that effort. But we have to make sure we continue to move the dialogue forward. It’s complicated by the fact that the picture’s still emerging here. The president has said that we need a global solution, but we also need to show the world that we’re in this game for the long term.

Q. Do you think we’ll have a climate policy in place by then?

A. I hope so. I certainly hope so. I want to remain optimistic that we will.

Q. Mountaintop-removal coal mining is a very controversial issue. [Recently] your administration said that you would rigorously scrutinize mountaintop-removal permits, but you’ve approved dozens of permits already. Why not ban the practice altogether?

A. The actual rules that enable surface mining, and mountaintop mining is one type of surface mining, are Department of Interior’s rules. And, I think wisely, the Council on Environmental Quality called together all the groups who work on mountaintop-mining issues, that would mean Interior and EPA and the Corps of Engineers, and said, “OK, listen, we need to look at this practice.” The assessment yielded something that I certainly agree with, and I think many people do, which is that the current state of the law and regs doesn’t allow us to just change the law and the regs to say that this process will no longer be allowable. There’s no way to do that under current law.

What we can do at EPA is commit to a couple things: rigorous scrutiny of permits to make sure that we look at potential impacts to water. And I think that there is a valid criticism that’s been leveled that the process is not open enough, that outside advocates — whether they be environmentalists or people who are advocating for mining or maybe community members — don’t have enough information to gauge whether or not they agree with EPA’s determinations or not. So we’ve not only said we’re going to scrutinize new permits as they come up, pull out the batch of 110 that are sitting and already waiting to be issued by the Corps and scrutinize those, but we’re going to do it with one other new improvement, which is to put all the information we have out in a database that’s publicly available, so that the public will know what concerns we have and why we have them. If we miss something, we can certainly have that discussion. If we disagree–reasonable people may be able to disagree on the science–but at least people aren’t trying to guess what EPA’s thinking as it reviews these permits.

Q. Sometimes you get the sense that climate change is the only environmental problem we’re grappling with. What do you think is the most pressing environmental concern after climate change?

A. I think it is important that we make sure the American people know that here at EPA we have an agenda that’s broader than climate change. It starts with renewing this agency’s commitment to science, to the law and transparency.

When we talk about environmental programs, I think we have to talk about air pollution still. A recent study said that as many as 60 percent of Americans live in areas of our country where we don’t meet air standards for the other criteria pollutants, even if you put CO2 and greenhouse gases on the side. That’s a pretty powerful and potent statement in the year 2009, that we still have that level of concern about air pollution. And in some areas, some urban areas and other areas, it’s much higher percentages, where the majority of the year the air is literally not safe to breathe. Climate change is a long-term threat, but things like ozone pollution and particulate pollution is much shorter and can have acute health impacts, even death. We have a huge obligation there.

And water. I think more and more Americans are very much aware of the fact that clean water is still not a given, even in this day and age, that we have too many communities that are struggling for clean drinking water. And then the next step, communities whose very economic future and recovery depend on a clean and sustainable source of water. And we don’t have answers for those communities.

We have a huge agenda on toxics, I like to say “toxic sites,” the clean-up program that many of us know as Superfund and brownfield sites. The president’s commitment to refunding through a “polluter pays” tax is music to our ears here at EPA. But then the other side of toxics, which is toxic chemicals. Many people aren’t as familiar with EPA’s role in evaluating toxic chemicals and assessing risk of chemicals. And I would like to see a robust and modernized program there as well.

Q. The EPA has been criticized for years for being notoriously slow at judging the toxicities of chemicals. What do you plan to do to speed that up?

A. We have two ideas: The first is to work within the regulatory authority we already have. That law is TSCA, the Toxic Substances Control Act, which basically requires EPA to assess new chemicals as they come on the market. Anything can be improved, but that’s not the greatest source of frustration. For many Americans the concern is the existing chemicals that were sort of grandfathered in when TSCA came to be, and new concerns about how well and how much of that chemical universe we’re assessing. And we’re right now reviewing our regulatory authority to come up with some new ideas, some fresh ideas, besides the voluntary programs that we’ve seen for the past eight years, in terms of TSCA.

Then we announced just a week ago a reworking of our risk assessment process in terms of something called IRIS [Integrated Risk Information System]. We have a huge database that’s internationally used where we put chemical toxicity information out for everyone to use in their decision-making, and we had gotten to the point where, in my belief, an overly complicated system that involved a little too much opinion from non-scientists had come to be the way that IRIS risk assessments were done. We changed that, we’ve gone back to a simpler process; we are aiming for a 23-month from start to finish process for IRIS risk assessments.

And EPA’s working now to formulate a position on potential changes to the legislation that’s already out there. TSCA’s a statute that’s been around since 1976, and it’s reasonable to believe that it might be time to look at better ways and quicker ways to protect Americans from risk of toxic chemicals in the year 2009.

Q. The green team is a diverse group, and a lot of you have been outspoken on environmental justice, an issue that’s been sidelined for many years. What would you like to see happen on the policy level to address the disproportionate impacts of pollution on low-income communities?

A. First and foremost I would like to see the fruition of the dreams of folks who have been advocating on environmental justice for a long, long time, and almost made it their life’s passion, and that’s that they have a seat at the table and a voice and that they’re listened to, that [environmental justice] is not an afterthought to be redressed later, but that in decision making, in policy making, we give consideration to make sure that those who are poor, those who are already disproportionately impacted for whatever set of reasons, aren’t being asked to accept an additional share of environmental burden because it’s easier or because they’re disenfranchised. Of course we know that oftentimes when you take poor and disproportionately impacted, that intersects with people of color. Environmental justice I think at its heart says let’s look at the science — if you’re being impacted, it’s very likely that we can do something to help, that we can be proactive on our decision making.

The second thing I’d like to see is that we don’t just deal with the bad stuff, but as we see this new economy growing — this green jobs, green collar, green energy, whatever euphemism we want to use — that we get some of that good stuff going as well, so that a lot of communities who may feel separate from environmental issues suddenly have a real stake in them, because they literally make their living through green energy or through site cleanup. We’ve seen some amazing success stories in the brownfields program where you give jobs to people to help clean up sites in their own community. And you don’t just give someone a job when that happens, you build an environmentalist from the ground up. Now all of a sudden it’s an issue that they care about, it literally is their life’s work. That’s what we want to see as well.

Q. You’ve talked about how your job places you in a remarkable moment in history. What is it like to experience this and why is this issue so important to you on a personal level?

A. I wish I was eloquent enough to explain to people how much of a dream come true it is to be back at EPA at this time. I think if you ask any career civil servant in the building, “If you could do anything for EPA over the last eight years, what would you do?”, they would say, “I’d like to bring the place back, I’d like to value the employees, I’d like to make the American people know how important the work is that we do and how serious it is that we take it” — and I get to do that. And I worked here for 16 years before as one of those folks in the trenches. I was in New Jersey working for Gov. [Jon] Corzine, and there was no greater job, except for this one. It would have taken a great job to leave. I wish I could tell you how extraordinary it is. All I can say is that it’s worth moving the family, selling the house, getting here as soon as possible, because from the president to every single one of the employees, it’s just been an incredible experience, really an honor.

Be sure to check out video highlights from the interview.