ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Cancel

After Admitting Faults at Hearing, New EPA Head Starts Work

Lisa Jackson answers a question at her confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)With little scrutiny or controversy, Lisa Jackson was confirmed by the Senate late last night to head the Environmental Protection Agency after a confirmation hearing where criticisms of Jackson’s tenure as head of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection were given short shrift.

In her first move as EPA chief, Jackson pledged to make science “the backbone for EPA programs.” In a memo sent to EPA employees today, Jackson said that reducing greenhouse gas emissions, managing chemical risks, cleaning up hazardous waste and protecting America’s water would receive her personal attention.

As ProPublica reported, Jackson’s approach to virtually all of these goals was criticized when she was head of the New Jersey’s environmental department. In the run-up to her confirmation, Jackson’s critics accused her of being cozy with industry, failing to act on a three-year-old recommendation to regulate perchlorate in drinking water, and not fulfilling a promise to fix the state’s hazardous waste program.

Questions about these aspects of her record were only briefly addressed at her confirmation hearing. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, saved these questions for what she called a “lighting round” that took place in the final minutes of Jackson’s confirmation.

During the “lighting round,” Jackson for the first time acknowledged there was a delay between her agency’s discovery that a day care center was built inside an abandoned thermometer factory contaminated with mercury and her demand that the day care center be shutdown.

Jackson initially claimed in a 2006 press release that as soon as she found out the Kiddie Kollege day care center was contaminated with mercury, “inspectors moved in, took samples and shut it down.”

In the hearing, Jackson said that in fact, months passed before her department shut down the day care center because the department waited for mercury test results to come back. “I know that in hindsight we all wish things had turned out differently, and that’s really what I would say to the parents,” said Jackson. 

Next, Jackson defended her record on perchlorate, a chemical in rocket fuel that was found in six out of 123 public drinking water wells (PDF) in New Jersey. Each well served at least 10,000 people. Studies link perchlorate to thyroid damage that can slow brain development in children. 

In October 2005, New Jersey was urged to regulate (PDF) the chemical by a panel of state scientists, environmental activists and industry leaders. Three years later, the DEP still hasn’t completed a draft of the rule.

In the hearing Jackson admitted the standard was late, but assured the Senate her agency was closely monitoring perchlorate levels and the proposed rule should be out by the end of the month. 

Two weeks ago the Bush administration’s EPA announced it would delay its decision on whether to set a national drinking water standard for perchlorate until it receives advice from the National Academy of Sciences, effectively punting the decision to Jackson.

Boxer asked Jackson if she would “commit to immediately review this failure to establish a drinking water standard for perchlorate and act to address the threat to pregnant women and children caused by this dangerous toxin?”

Jackson promised that she would.

As NJDEP administrator, Jackson also came under fire for her approach toward toxic waste sites scattered throughout New Jersey.

Jackson was accused of failing to prioritize New Jersey’s 16,000 sites, a promise she made (PDF) shortly after she became head of the department in 2006. In the hearing, Jackson said the department’s development of the ranking system is “not quite done yet, so it’s late, but it’s late because it relies on GPS technology, and for the first time ever, site-specific pollution data.”

Jackson also supported a controversial proposal backed by New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine to outsource the department’s cleanup efforts to consultants. The policy could result in cleanups being conducted by groups that also work for the companies responsible for the contaminated sites.

Boxer, an ardent critic of the Bush administration’s handling of the federal government’s Superfund program to clean up toxic waste, questioned Jackson’s support of the Corzine proposal. But Jackson said she wouldn’t use private consultants at federal Superfund sites because “of the differences in the way New Jersey manages its program versus the federal program.”

Jackson’s approach toward one contaminated site in particular created quite a stir in New Jersey. At issue were wide swaths of valuable land laden with chromium, a carcinogenic chemical. 

In one of her first moves as the head of New Jersey’s environment department, Jackson lifted a moratorium (pdf) on residential development on chromium contaminated land, and tightened New Jersey’s chromium standard. 

But New Jersey department scientist, Zoe Kelman, protested that decision, saying that it was premature because a more comprehensive study on chromium was due to be completed by the National Toxicology Program later that year. When that report came out, Jackson did not revisit New Jersey’s chromium standard or her decision to lift the moratorium on development.

Kelman, who quit the department out of frustration, says that Jackson “ignored” a letter she wrote about how a protective cap made out of synthetic materials and soil would not sufficiently control chromium-laden waste in Jersey City. 

While Jackson was not specifically asked about her history on chromium at her confirmation hearing, Sen. Boxer did ask whether Jackson would regulate the chemical in drinking water as head of the EPA. Again, Jackson assured the senator that she would abide by her request. 

The EPA’s ailing chemical risk assessment program may be one of the more daunting challenges that Jackson will face at the EPA. 

This morning, the Government Accountability Office released a report adding the program to its list of 30 “high-risk” (PDF) federal programs.

“EPA does not have sufficient chemical assessment information to determine whether it should establish controls to limit public exposure to many chemicals that may pose substantial health risks,” the report said. 

The only apparent snag in Jackson’s confirmation was Sen. John Barasso’s (R-WY) concerns about the division of labor between Jackson and Obama’s appointed White House “climate czar,” Carol Browner. 

Barasso removed his hold on the confirmation after speaking to Browner and Jackson last night, clearing the way for her confirmation. 

 

Thanks for the coverage — one of the many leadership positions being filled that I’d like to know more about but haven’t had the time and energy to keep track of over the past few weeks.

Just a couple minor observations/comments:

(1) By “lighting round,” Boxer must have meant “lightning round,” right?

(2) The Kiddie Kollege mercury-related shutdown delay comes across here as a non-issue. You seem to be criticizing Jackson’s claim that “as soon as she found out the Kiddie Kollege day care center was contaminated with mercury, ‘inspectors moved in . . . and shut it down’ ”—but the claim seems perfectly consistent with having to have waited for mercury testing results to have come back. Is there much more to the story?

(3) The continued citing of perchorate as “a chemical in rocket fuel” (here and e.g. at http://www.propublica.org/article/jackson-to-be-asked-about-regulating-perchlorate-in-drinking-water-090113) strikes me as disingenuous and alarmist . . . surely there are multiple possible sources of perchlorate contamination and the repeated linkage drawn between rocket fuel and perchlorate contamination conjures up visions of the EPA ignoring some wholesale dumping of rocket fuel across the land. Rather than just a discussion of the regulation of the end-product (e.g. in terms of parts-per-billion in the water), it might be particularly illuminating to explain/describe the actual sources of the perchlorate contamination.

Thanks again for the informative articles!