When Jackson was appointed in December 2008, some prominent environmentalists considered her the wrong person for the job. During her tenure as head of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, they pointed out, the state did such a dismal job of cleaning up toxic Superfund sites that even the Bush administration felt compelled to take them over. In a separate case, Jackson's unit discovered that a day-care facility housed in a former thermometer factory was exposing toddlers to mercury pollution, yet failed to alert parents for more than three months. "Under her watch, New Jersey's environment only got dirtier, incredible as that may seem," Jeff Ruch, president of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said at the time. "If past is prologue, one cannot reasonably expect meaningful change if she is appointed to lead EPA."
In the early going, Ruch's warning appeared prescient. Jackson kicked off her tenure at EPA by greenlighting more than two dozen permits for mountaintop removal coal mining that were held over from the Bush administration. "This mining is devastating Appalachia," warned Robert F. Kennedy Jr. "Everyone expected Obama to do something about it. Instead they're saying, 'We're going to let this happen.'"
Jackson herself now admits that those initial approvals were mishandled. "In hindsight, I certainly wish we could have gone through a longer process on some of those," she says. In September, the EPA put 79 permits for mountaintop removal on hold, pending a review to ensure that each complies with the Clean Water Act. In an unprecedented move, the agency also revoked a permit for the Spruce No. 1 mine, Appalachia's largest mountaintop-removal operation, observing that it would destroy seven miles of West Virginia streams already ravaged by mining.
In addition, Jackson tells Rolling Stone, the EPA is reviewing the infamous Bush "fill rule" that allows mining companies to bury streams and lakes with mining rubble in the first place. "Staff is working on it now," she says. "We haven't put anything about it out publicly." Jackson says the primary goal is to reform gold mining in Alaska — where miners have begun dumping toxic waste into a pristine lake near Juneau — but adds that the move may also "curtail" mountaintop-removal mining.
Today, environmentalists who fretted openly about Jackson's nomination are almost unanimous in singing her praises. "Parts of the environmental community were skeptical of her appointment," says Buck Parker, former executive director of the environmental-law firm Earthjustice. "But she's fantastic. Gutsy. Acts in accordance with what she says. She's proving to be one of the bright lights of the administration."
Most afternoons, you can find Jackson at EPA's headquarters in the old Post Office headquarters, a marble art-deco monument to an era when postmasters were kings. Her sprawling office is paneled, floor to ceiling, in old-growth walnut, and decorated with bright abstract art from the National Gallery. Near a copy of The Lorax, the Dr. Seuss environmental parable, Jackson keeps a photograph of Sen. James Inhofe, perhaps the most rabid anti-environmental zealot in Congress, surrounded by his grandchildren.
"We don't have rancor," Jackson says of the senator, who gave her the photo. "I keep it here to remind me that you gotta work with people. You gotta figure it out."
Jackson has a master's degree in chemical engineering from Princeton, and nearly two decades of experience directing the cleanup of toxic waste. But from her first day, she discovered, her most important skill was her ability to shift the attitude of staffers who remain stuck in the Bush-era mind-set that the EPA should weaken environmental enforcement to satisfy the demands of big polluters.
"Oftentimes we're in a meeting and somebody starts telling me, 'Well, we already know what this official — usually a local official — really wants.' I tell them I don't want to know that," she says. "I want to know what the science says. Even now they're surprised to hear me say that."
To shift the agency's culture, Jackson has moved swiftly to restore top career staffers who were shunted aside during the Bush years. "We call them 'cryogenically frozen,'" says a top aide to Jackson. "We've reactivated a lot of people who were known to disagree with the Bush administration's politics and were hung up in closets." Veteran staffers who have gotten their old jobs back say privately that they spent eight years under Bush "trying to do something good under the radar" — even as they were forced to design programs that "we all knew the courts were going to throw out."
Under Jackson, the agency is once again basing decisions on science rather than politics. "The science is not something the Obama administration feels they have to guard themselves against," says one clean-air staffer who was sidelined under Bush. "Because they are not trying to protect their industry buddies from environmental regulations."
"They have freed up agency employees to do what they're supposed to do: protect public health and the environment," says Jeremy Symons, the EPA's former climate-policy adviser. "And God knows there's a lot of pent-up work behind the dam that needs to be unleashed."
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