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The Eco-Warrior: Lisa Jackson's EPA

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Much of Jackson's first year at the EPA, in fact, has been eaten up by reversing the worst of the Bush legacy. "It requires that we use our time and resources to look back," she says, "when we absolutely need to be moving ahead."

In one of its final acts, the Bush EPA effectively barred new oversight of oil refineries with a regulatory trick: It covered up the overall impact of a refinery's pollution by measuring every smokestack separately, as if each were operating in isolation. "Imagine if you had 10 smokers in a room and a baby in the middle," says Schaeffer, the former enforcement director. "You're trying to figure the impact on that baby's lungs, but you model the smoke from each cigarette and assume that's all you have in the room. There wasn't any science behind it."

Jackson summarily revoked the oil-friendly rule in October. She also jettisoned lax smog rules set under Bush that flouted the unanimous recommendation of independent scientists and allowed higher pollution levels — effectively sentencing hundreds of people a year to premature death. "This is one of the most important protection measures we can take to safeguard our health," Jackson said in sending the rules back to the drawing board. In January, the agency proposed strict new smog limits that are expected to be finalized later this year.

After having its budget sharply curtailed under Bush, the EPA now has its biggest budget in history — thanks to an increase of $3 billion under Obama. The additional resources have enabled Jackson to put dozens of new federal cops on the environmental beat, and to crack down on states that fail to enforce the law. Chief among those states is Texas, where Gov. George Bush shifted the state to a system of "flexible permits" that allow oil refineries, chemical plants and other industrial polluters to increase toxic emissions as they modernize their facilities. Last summer, Jackson lowered the boom on Texas — first by sending an order to Gov. Rick Perry that rejected key elements of the state's regulatory implementation plan, then by descending on the state EPA office in person, accompanied by top enforcement officials from Washington.

"It was an army of people — I've never seen anything like that," says Neil Carman, director of clean-air programs for the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club. "We've got the attention of the highest level of people at the EPA, and they're going after it. We've waited 15 years to see this happen."

Advocates of environmental justice are also thrilled by Jackson's emphasis on protecting vulnerable communities that lack lobbying clout. She has started by filling the EPA, long a bastion of whiteness in Washington, with young aides who represent minority groups hard hit by pollution: the nearly three-fourths of Hispanics who live in communities that fail to meet clean-air standards, African-Americans who are more than twice as likely as whites to die from asthma, Native Americans whose homes lack clean water at almost 10 times the national rate. For Jackson, who grew up in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, near the toxic corridor known as "Cancer Alley," such realities are a major reason she joined the EPA right out of grad school.

"What I'm trying to do is bring the agency back to being closer to the communities that are fighting for environmental protection," she says. "Because that's how environmental protection gets done — it usually comes from the communities up."

The shift to a more community-focused approach is already having an effect. When Emily Enderle, an environmental-health advocate with Earthjustice, recently petitioned the EPA to protect children exposed to dangerous pesticides, she was amazed to see the agency respond in only three weeks by initiating the process to create a new regulation.

"We didn't have any of the big green groups supporting this," Enderle says. "But they were very supportive of protecting rural kids who've been poisoned by nerve-toxic pesticides."

Jackson has moved with equal dispatch to clean up the nation's drinking water. After a storage facility loaded with coal ash collapsed in Tennessee in 2008 — creating a toxic spill 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez — the EPA quickly disclosed previously secret information about 44 other "high hazard" storage facilities. The agency has also targeted 104 chemicals to be added to the Safe Drinking Water Act — a move that would more than double the 91 toxic substances currently subject to regulation.

In addition, Jackson is working with Congress to require all chemical manufacturers to prove that their compounds are safe before they enter the environment. "Safety standards cannot be applied without adequate information," says Jackson, "and responsibility for providing that information should rest on industry."

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