After 8 years, a stunner: EPA nominee to put science first

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 14, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Lisa Jackson, President-elect Barack Obama's choice to run the Environmental Protection Agency, promised Wednesday to lead the agency "with science as my guide" and not to allow political appointees to trump the advice of EPA scientists.

Senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee bombarded Jackson with environmental issues, everything from climate disruption to coal ash disposal and new air-pollution rules.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the committee's chairman, and other Democrats said that during the Bush administration the EPA listened to industry lobbyists instead of its own science staff and failed to impose regulations that were needed to protect Americans from toxic pollution and to reduce the emissions that caused global warming.

Boxer said the confirmation hearing for Jackson and Nancy Helen Sutley, Obama's choice to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality, was a turning point for both agencies. "I've been waiting for this day for a long, long time," she said, but she added that the hearing was meant to focus on the future. "You're today and tomorrow," she said to Jackson.

Republican senators said they worried that the EPA would use the Clean Air Act or other laws to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide in excessive ways. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said that EPA decisions would determine "whether overzealous regulations pull us deeper into economic turmoil."

Jackson said Obama expected the EPA to uphold scientific integrity and the rule of law and to operate with openness.

Jackson and Sutley said Obama has said that it's possible to have a strong economy and a healthy environment at the same time.

Jackson also said she'd move toward regulations on carbon emissions in a "reasonable, thoughtful and deliberate" way.

"If I am confirmed, I will administer with science as my guide," Jackson said. "I understand that the laws leave room for policymakers to make policy judgments. But if I am confirmed, political appointees will not compromise the integrity of EPA's technical experts to advance particular regulatory outcomes."

Boxer said the EPA was a "shadow of its former self" and that people who worked there had said that morale was low because the expertise of EPA staff had been ignored. She told Jackson to assure the EPA's 17,000 employees that they were needed to protect health and the environment.

"With pleasure, Madame Chairwoman," Jackson said.

Jackson also promised to make sure that the EPA "right away" looks into how coal combustion waste from power plants is stored at hundreds of sites around the country.

The first priority is to look into wet storage, where coal combustion waste is mixed with water and piled up in ponds such as the one in Tennessee that gave way Dec. 22, inundating more than 200 acres with toxic sludge.

Places such as that with a "mountain of wet coal ash" can endanger lives, Jackson said.

As soon as the scope of the problem is clear, the EPA should decide whether it should impose federal regulations on storing the coal waste, she added. Coal ash contains lead, mercury, arsenic and other toxic metals, but there are no national standards for handling it.

When Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., asked Jackson for her views on the future of coal, she said that coal supplied half of America's electricity now, but added that it's also the largest source of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. She said there was a need to "move American ingenuity toward addressing it . . . if we're going to beat this climate change issue," because the United States, China and India all were likely to continue using coal.

Jackson also said that she'd immediately revisit the question of whether to grant California and other states the right to impose stricter vehicle-emissions standards, something that the EPA wouldn't do under President George W. Bush. Obama has said he'd sign such a measure, Boxer said.

Jackson worked at the EPA for 15 years and recently was the commissioner of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection.

Sutley, who'll be Obama's science adviser if she's confirmed, worked for the EPA for six years and was the deputy secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, an energy adviser to former California Gov. Gray Davis and a member of the state's Water Resources Control Board. Her most recent job has been the deputy mayor for energy and environment in Los Angeles.

The Council on Environmental Quality coordinates the federal government's environmental policies.

Sutley promised to "ensure that there is a strong science and policy basis for our environmental policy, to move the nation to greater reliance on clean energy and increase energy security, to combat global warming while growing the green economy, to protect public health and the environment, especially in vulnerable communities, and to protect and restore our great ecosystems."

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