Lisa Jackson. Photo: Jose Moreno / AP
Lisa Jackson.

Depending on who you ask, Lisa Jackson is either the best or worst thing that ever happened to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which she led from February 2006 to November 2008.

For the most part, New Jersey’s biggest environmental groups praise her work on climate change and celebrate her nomination to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But she also has a passionate and vocal group of detractors, mainly people who have worked on toxics in the state, both within the DEP and outside it. Her critics say she’s a political player who has undermined science within the department. The deep divide between greens in the state has lead to some nasty finger-pointing on both sides.

“When she became commissioner we had high expectations, and we thought she was going to come in and move the DEP away from being a failure and actually moving it to an organization that would be strong on the environment, strong on enforcement, exemplify leadership,” said Robert Spiegel, executive director of the Edison Wetlands Association, a nonprofit based in central New Jersey. “I was sadly disappointed, as were many folks in the environmental community in New Jersey, by her performance as commissioner of the DEP.”

New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel defended Jackson, even though she didn’t agree with enviros all the time. “I think she’s a decent person who has some strong environmental principles,” he said.

Amy Goldsmith, director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, praised Jackson’s work on water protections and the state’s climate plan. “She’s clearly more of an environmentalist than we’ve had in previous commissioners,” she said. “I would say probably on average 70 percent of the time or more we agree with her. It isn’t that she gives us 100 percent of what we want. She has priorities that she has to make, and she has constraints from up above in the governor’s office.”

The split seems to be between those who work on energy and climate policy in the state’s capital and those who work on toxic cleanups at the local level.

“A lot of these people who are saying these negative things don’t even work in Trenton and they don’t even work on these issues,” said Tittel. “That’s what I find … very aggravating.”

Spiegel, meanwhile, says his experience with Jackson on local issues has demonstrated that she’s not capable of reforming the federal EPA. “So many environmental groups in New Jersey have said that [her nomination] is a good thing for the EPA, but those groups don’t work in the trenches,” he said. “We do. We have about 70 sites we work on directly and advocate for directly, and we see first hand what’s happened.”

A toxic legacy

New Jersey, a hub for the chemical manufacturing industry, is one of the most polluted states in the nation, with some 16,000 contaminated sites, including 115 Superfund sites. Early in her tenure, Jackson promised to reform the department’s $60 million toxic-site cleanup program.

“I firmly believe that additional changes in how the DEP manages and cleans up contaminated sites are definitely needed,” Jackson said in a hearing before the state Senate Environment Committee in October 2006, nine months after she took the helm at the agency. She said then that one of her key objectives would be prioritizing the sites in order to get the most dangerous cleaned up first. But critics lambaste her for never getting around to completing that ranking.

A June 2008 report [PDF] from the U.S. EPA Office of Inspector General slammed the state for delays and mismanagement of seven state-supervised Superfund cleanups, going so far as to recommend that the federal EPA assume responsibility for the cleanups. The report notes that the problems predated Jackson, but also continued through her time as commissioner.

Spiegel of the Edison Wetlands Association says the state has failed not only to act on a number of sites already known to be contaminated, but on listing new sites as well. Recently his organization has been calling on the DEP to investigate the Akzo Nobel chemical plant, which it says is leaking benzene and other chemicals into the Raritan River, but its repeated requests have been ignored. “We were left having to file a federal lawsuit in order to get a site cleaned up that normally DEP in the past would have taken immediate action on,” said Spiegel. “For us that really directly spoke to leadership and [Jackson's] ability to protect human health and the environment. She failed on every test in that aspect.”

Critics say Jackson has also failed to adequately protect the public from chromium pollution. The previous DEP commissioner, Brad Campbell, had placed a moratorium on development of sites found to contain the carcinogenic substance until new standards could be put in place. When new standards for cleanup were finalized, Jackson lifted the moratorium. But some in the state in the state, including a former DEP scientist who resigned over the issue, believe that the standards are far too lax, putting public health at risk.

“I thought technically [Jackson] would appreciate the complexity of [the chromium] issue. I knew her background with federal laws and I looked forward to it,” said Zoe Kelman, an environmental engineer who had been with the DEP for nearly 20 years. But she says Jackson ignored new data on the health effects of chromium as well as warnings from herself and others that standards needed to be stricter.

Kelman resigned in August 2008, saying that Jackson prioritized the interests of developers and industry over environmental health. “I just can’t function in that environment anymore,” she told Grist. “It just went against everything of who I am as a professional.”

Joe Morris, director of the environmental cleanup project at the Interfaith Community Organization, a small group that has worked on environmental-justice and remediation efforts, voiced similar complaints about Jackson, calling her “really irresponsible.” Morris’s group in 2003 successfully sued Honeywell International to force it to clean up a 34-acre chromium-contaminated site along Jersey City’s waterfront. When his group has come to Jackson with concerns about other sites, it’s been largely ignored, he said.

“We’ve had relationships with commissioners with whom we’ve disagreed very strenuously, but they were still willing to meet,” said Morris. Jackson “operates in a bubble,” he said, and has not been responsive to requests to investigate sites and force cleanups. “The only way to get a cleanup was for private citizens to go to court,” said Morris.

The toxics issue that grabbed the most attention during Jackson’s time at the DEP was her handling of mercury poisoning at the Kiddie Kollege day-care center in Franklin Township, N.J., an incident that arose early in her tenure. At least a third of the 60 children at the day care were found to have abnormally high levels of mercury in their bodies. The fact that a day-care center was operating out of a building that had previously housed a thermometer manufacturer — and had mercury vapor levels at least 27 times the regulatory limit — apparently went unnoticed by DEP officials for years.
The permitting and oversight problem started before Jackson was commissioner, but critics point out that there was a three-month lag between discovery of the problem in April 2006 and shutdown of the facility in July of that year.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility cites toxic-cleanup failures as just one of many reasons why Jackson is unfit to lead the EPA. The group has been particularly critical of a Permit Efficiency Review Task Force that Jackson appointed last year, arguing that it was “industry-dominated” and not sufficiently transparent in its dealings (though it did ultimately make its findings public).

Budget woes

The state’s bigger green groups say that Jackson was constrained both by the state’s budget and by Gov. Jon Corzine (D), who has been inclined to protect the state’s industrial base from new environmental regulations.

“There are many other accomplishments that Lisa Jackson would have had if it wasn’t for Corzine’s policies and his refusal to sign off on certain things,” said Sierra Club’s Tittel. “Jon Corzine is the one setting policy as governor. Lisa Jackson is carrying it out. She’s done some good things, there’s some things that she’s done that I don’t agree with, but most of the things I don’t agree with came from the governor.”

Overall, the DEP has 3,200 employees, a thousand fewer than it did at its peak two decades ago. The agency handles about 26,000 permit requests each year. The Permit Efficiency Review Task Force set up by Jackson concluded that severe understaffing and a lack of technological infrastructure were causing big delays.

Staff shortages date back to the 1990s, when then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) cut the DEP’s staff by 20 percent and reduced the remaining staff to 35 hours a week. The office in charge of hazardous waste used to have 270 people, but is now down to 150, according to Tittel.

Budget cuts have continued under Corzine, and he has put a hiring freeze in place in the state. Last year, the DEP lost another 119 staffers through an early-retirement program the state was pushing to help cut the budget.

“She was already operating under pretty adverse conditions, and then the budget crisis in the state got worse,” said Goldsmith of the New Jersey Environmental Federation.

An outsource of contention

Jackson has said that budget constraints prompted her department to advocate for privatizing site remediation work in the state. A plan to outsource toxic-site cleanups to private consultants will go before the legislature early this year.

“Sometimes I feel our department is so overworked that we are not getting results, we’re just pushing paper,” Jackson said last April. “Therefore, I feel outsourcing the consultant program to the private sector will ease the workload and lower the wait time for all those involved in site remediation.”

This plan has drawn harsh criticism from environmentalists. “We don’t think that consultants should be the ones to verify whether a site has been cleaned up,” said Goldsmith. Enviros also argue that the plan could create conflicts of interest, potentially allowing polluting companies to get contracts to clean up the messes they made.

Tittel too opposes the privatization plan, but blames Corzine rather than Jackson. “I think the whole issue over privatizing part of the site-remediation programs is because Corzine has tied her hands with the budget, not having more staff to oversee the cleanup of contaminated sites,” he said.

Successes

Jackson has earned much praise, however, for her work on the state’s climate change and energy plans, and on clean-water protections. During her tenure, more than 900 miles of state waterways were given the highest level of protection under the Clean Water Act, limiting development and requiring buffer zones.

“She did some good work on clean water and land use, which was difficult to be successful on, because Gov. Corzine was not supportive of a lot of the land-use protections that we were seeking and that she wanted to adopt,” said Dena Mottola Jaborska, executive director of Environment New Jersey. “It’s not perfect. Lisa wasn’t able to see all the protection through that we wanted, but she was more successful than any of the other heads of the DEP that I’ve worked with.”

Green groups say Jackson also pushed Corzine toward tougher measures on climate and energy. The Global Warming Response Act, which the governor signed into law in July 2007, aims to reduce the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80 percent below 2006 levels by mid-century.

The state missed a June 2008 deadline by which it was supposed to identify measures needed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, but again Tittel says that’s mostly Corzine’s fault because the governor “micromanages and won’t let anything go out until he signs off.”

The plan was released in mid-December, and enviros say it’s strong. It calls for 90 percent of new development to be in areas already served by public infrastructure, a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, increased public transit, and a requirement that all buildings constructed after 2030 to have net-zero energy consumption. (The trick will be getting the legislature to sign off.)

Tittel also credits Jackson with shaping the state’s 15-year energy master plan. A 2006 law set a goal of drawing 20 percent of the state’s electricity from renewables by 2020, but now the Corzine administration is aiming for 30 percent. In October, Corzine announced a plan to triple the amount of wind power in the state by 2020, to 3,000 megawatts — about 13 percent of the state’s total electricity — to help meet that goal. Tittel says Jackson played a key role in reforming the plan to promote offshore wind, renewable energy, and energy efficiency; in its first incarnation, it was heavy on nuclear and fossil fuels.

Jackson is currently vice president of the executive board of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the cap-and-trade program created by northeastern states to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that kicked off in September.

Still, critics like Bill Wolfe, the former director of the state PEER group and a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger, say Jackson has not done enough to regulate greenhouse gases in the state. Wolfe argues that the DEP had the power to curb emissions even before passage of the Global Warming Response Act in 2007. “Although Jackson is touted as a leader on global warming, few realize that she has done nothing to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as NJ DEP Commissioner, despite having existing regulatory authority to do so,” wrote Wolfe in a recent column. “The Jackson record amounts to the same as the Bush policy — no regulation, no action, no reductions.”

Is she ready for the big leagues?

Jackson’s critics in the state say her record there does not portend great things at the federal level. “I shudder at the thought of her being put in charge of an agency that’s supposed to be protecting the environment and human health of the whole United States when she couldn’t even do it for New Jersey
,” said Spiegel.

“In my opinion, Lisa Jackson has ably used [New Jersey] and the DEP as a stepping stone to a federal position, leaving behind no legacy of environmental resource protection but only an outstanding record of self-preservation and self-publicity,” wrote columnist John Bury.

Yet her supporters think she’ll be able to accomplish a lot under Obama, who has set forth an ambitious environmental agenda.

“We’re looking forward to her having the opportunity to actually do some of the things she’s wanted to do here in New Jersey, but because of resources and lack of leadership at the top, she hasn’t been able to those things,” said Goldsmith.

“I think she, under some very tough circumstances here, has done some very good things, and has gotten some good programs fixed,” said Tittel. “I think at the national level the difference is that Barack Obama is not Jon Corzine, and I think she can get a lot more done.”