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EPA Chief Lisa Jackson Links Civil Rights and Environmental Justice

5 years ago
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TAMPA, Fla. -- OK, the unemployment rate for July fell to 9.4 percent, down from 9.5 percent in June, according to reports from the Labor Department on Friday. While it's the first decrease since early 2008, 247,000 jobs were still lost nationwide in July. At the same time, the course of the economy is still in question, and the debate over the health care package is causing rifts all over America. So how does the leader of the Environmental Protection Agency get people to focus on the environment? By showing how all these issues are related.

Lisa Jackson brought her message to the annual conference of the National Association of Black Journalists here on Friday in the session, "This Land Is Our Land Too: Justice, Jobs and Environmental Protection." On the schedule were several representatives of President Obama's administration.

It was a chance, as Washington's August recess began, to be on-message about the president's initiatives before the 1,900 registered attendees. One question to Jackson was how $30 billion of government investments in energy and environmental policy would lead to improvements in some of the country's most vulnerable communities.
She answered by speaking about green jobs reaching those who need work and about cleaning up communities where toxins trigger high incidences of asthma and other illnesses. "Poisons in the ground mean poisons in the economy," she said. Funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 are being allocated for community college training for green jobs and for clean-up and redevelopment projects. (Details of how they are being spent in the states and cities are available on the EPA's Web site.)

Jackson said that the administration's plans for clean energy could replace some fraction of manufacturing jobs lost with opportunities in "another industrial revolution" -- jobs in alternative-energy sources, in weatherization, in federal investment in research and development.

The first African-American to hold the post also said she realized the challenge of reaching urban high-rises in a movement many associate with "sweeping vistas and wide-open landscapes." But she had hope, she said, in training programs and in young people "who are embracing the green economy." It's necessary, she said, to make clear to people suffering immediate economic distress the relationship between "traditional civil rights and social justice issues" and environmental justice.

There was a time, she said, her family would be "forced to drink unsafe water from an inferior water fountain." Today, the issues are reflected in decisions not to build schools "in the shadow of polluters that will make our children sick." Residents of inner cities are more likely to live close to environmental hazards and spend more of their disposable income on energy. They often receive their primary medical care in emergency rooms, which she said drives up health care costs.

Jackson -- questioned first by Mark Whitaker, Washington, D.C., bureau chief for NBC News and then by attending journalists – was educated as a chemical engineer in the time of Love Canal and Superfund controversies that revealed the health effects of abandoned chemicals. It was then, she said, she realized the "problems of an industrial age" and the role she could play in cleaning them up.

She grew up in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina flooded the home of her mother, who has not returned. The lesson America learned? The wetlands of New Orleans – filled in and sliced by oil and gas lines, she said -- were more than just swamps and mosquito-breeding grounds. Wetlands served as a buffer that had protected the city from hurricanes. But of course, environmental warnings and statistics are about politics as well as policy.

After the session, Jackson told me that any corporate opposition to environmental improvement efforts – based on financial hardship – is not borne out by the history. Recalling the debate over the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, she said businesses argued the rules would "cripple them." But "technology steps in." And pollution levels have gone down. In fractious and uncertain times, cleaning up the land, air and water could ultimately be "a potentially unifying issue," Jackson said. "People have to believe that it's good for the country."

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