Lisa P. Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has a history of firsts.
Jackson is the first chemical engineer and the first African American to head EPA. She is the first agency administrator to take a deep interest in reforming the nation's law for managing chemicals. She also recently signed the nation's first-ever regulation controlling greenhouse gas emissions.
And she was first in her high school graduating class.
"I was a straight-A student in high school," Jackson tells C&EN during a recent interview. What set her apart, she says, was her aptitude in math.
But those math skills didn't develop in a vacuum. Jackson got a push from the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering & Science, known now as the National GEM Consortium.
"They offered this really simple scholarship," she says in blend of New Orleans twang and a New Jersey accent, reflecting her hometown and the state where she studied and worked for years. The consortium offered a free Hewlett-Packard calculator—a nice prize in the late 1970s—to high schoolers who attended summer math and science classes at Tulane University. This program "gave professors at Tulane a chance to see what you could do, and it gave you a chance to see Tulane," she says.
After high school, Jackson enrolled at Tulane on a scholarship from Shell Oil. "Once I got there, I just loved engineering," she says. "I loved it much more than pure chemistry." She singles out Samuel L. Sullivan Jr., emeritus associate dean of undergraduate studies at Tulane's School of Engineering, as a major influence on her academic choices.
"If I had to say there was one person who got me to be a chemical engineer, it was him," Jackson says of Sullivan. "I've always really felt fortunate to have had somebody intervene.
"You cannot underestimate the importance of a young person having somebody who takes an interest and says, 'Let's talk about engineering,' " she says. "People don't have any idea what engineers do. If somebody doesn't sit a talented young person down and explain to them, open their eyes, and get them excited about it, they're likely not going to do it."
Jackson is proud of her academic background. "Like most engineers, I now believe that it's the only undergraduate degree worth getting and that it is the perfect training for almost anything—witness my current job," says Jackson, who, as administrator of EPA, is a member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet. She points out that many attorneys, physicians, and people holding master's degrees in business administration have engineering backgrounds as well.
"The whole way an engineer is trained to solve a problem, to think strategically, to try to design a system, a solution, figure out all the things that push and pull on a decision, is very, very helpful," Jackson adds.
After graduating summa cum laude from Tulane in 1983, Jackson went on to earn a master's degree in chemical engineering at Princeton University. While in graduate school, current events spurred her to think about a career beyond the chemical industry.
"While I was in school, Love Canal and all that toxic waste stuff came to be," Jackson says. Love Canal, in Niagara Falls, N.Y., was one of the nation's first Superfund sites, home to a school and playground built over a former chemical dump (C&EN, Nov. 17, 2008, page 46).
The connections between the creation of hazardous waste and cleaning up pollution clicked in Jackson.
"It occurred to me, if an engineer can be the person who designs all these systems that make all this waste, it's probably going to take an engineer to figure out what kind of systems will treat it and get rid of it," she explains.
Jackson points out that unlike so many people concerned about environmental issues, she wasn't inculcated as a child with the desire to protect nature. She didn't spend time as a youth in the great outdoors camping and hiking. "No, not me," she says, laughing. "I came at it the other way. Wanting to do something about pollution drove me to the job."
She spent her first year-and-a-half out of graduate school working at Clean Sites, a nonprofit organization that brokered deals to speed the cleanup of hazardous waste sites. But she saw that EPA was the real powerhouse in driving these cleanups.
"I felt like anybody back then who wanted to work in this field needed to be at EPA," she says. Jackson landed a job in the agency's hazardous waste program, starting as a staff-level engineer in Washington, D.C., and later moving to EPA's regional office in New York City. She spent 15 years as an EPA employee.
In 2002, Jackson left EPA to join the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. She served as the department's commissioner from 2006 to 2008 under then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D). Jackson briefly became Corzine's chief of staff before taking the helm of EPA in January 2009.
To date, Jackson, 48, is best known at EPA for her decision last year that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases are pollutants that threaten public health and welfare and thus need regulation under the Clean Air Act (C&EN, Dec. 14, 2009, page 7). A 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling compelled the agency administrator to make this determination, called an endangerment finding.
In April, a rule from EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration set the first federal limit ever on greenhouse gas emissions. It applies to cars and light trucks, beginning in 2012 and ratcheting the limits down until 2016.
Under the endangerment finding, EPA is also preparing to regulate emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases from industrial facilities such as chemical manufacturing plants and electricity generating stations. Jackson has estimated that fewer than 400 facilities, with emissions of more than 25,000 tons per year, will be affected (C&EN, March 1, page 14).
Jackson has repeatedly defended the endangerment finding before skeptical lawmakers on Capitol Hill who attack her decision to regulate CO2 now, as well as the science behind human-induced climate change. She is a major voice of the Obama White House in pushing for development of cleaner energy. The EPA administrator has carried that message to many venues, from community gatherings to Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," a satirical TV news program.
"The challenge there is to try to cut through the spin and the public relations messaging and the politics of the folks who want to use the issue politically to get to the real the crux of the matter," she explains. The bottom line is that "we have any number of reasons to move to cleaner energy," she says, including national security, jobs, and a cleaner environment. "That message is being lost by people who are using the issue politically."
Even with all her work on climate change and clean energy, the issue that is "closest to my heart," Jackson says, is reforming the federal law governing chemicals—the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). No other EPA administrator has taken such an ardent interest in this environmental statute, which has long been on the back burner at the agency.
Most chemical manufacturers, along with environmental groups, health advocates, and unions, agree that TSCA, which has remained essentially unchanged since 1976, is in many ways outdated. Last year, Jackson unveiled the Obama Administration's principles for reforming TSCA (C&EN, Oct. 5, 2009, page 9).
"The law and the structure of the law in no way is modern enough or has enough teeth," Jackson says.
Congress is showing signs that it is ready to update this statute. Last month, the House of Representatives Energy & Commerce Committee unveiled draft legislation to rewrite TSCA, and a related measure, S. 3209, was introduced in the Senate (C&EN, April 19, page 27).
But Jackson has not been waiting on Congress. She started making in-house reforms to EPA's chemicals program shortly after taking the helm of the agency.
For instance, last year, she directed EPA to come up with plans to address six controversial chemicals or classes of substances. They are bisphenol A, phthalates, benzidine dyes and pigments, brominated flame retardants, perfluorinated compounds, and short-chain chlorinated paraffins. Five of these strategies are already in place (C&EN, Jan. 11, page 9, and April 5, page 8).
Jackson also pulled the plug on the agency's Chemical Assessment & Management Program. Launched under former president George W. Bush, this initiative was an industry-backed effort to evaluate thousands of substances for their potential to harm human health and the environment on the basis of available data.
"If there's one thing I think I can bring about, it will be chemical management reform—real reform that looks toward a greener chemistry, that provides business incentives to do it," Jackson says.
Environmental groups, the chemical industry, and policy analysts have taken keen notice of Jackson's actions.
"Lisa Jackson is revitalizing EPA's outlook on industrial chemicals, pushing TSCA's limited legal authority like never before, while Congress mulls a major legislative overhaul," says Daryl Ditz, senior policy adviser at the Center for International Environmental Law.
"We agree with Administrator Jackson that it is time for chemical management reform," says Calvin M. Dooley, president and chief executive officer of the industry group American Chemistry Council. "We are encouraged that EPA's own principles for TSCA reform closely mirror those proposed by ACC last summer. However, there is much work to be done to translate these initiatives into effective regulation and to ensure that current legislative proposals protect safety, innovation, and jobs."
Lawrence Sloan, president and CEO of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates, an industry association, offers circumspection. "SOCMA hopes the administrator will match her passion for passing comprehensive TSCA reform with an understanding of the complexities and challenges that this legislation will immediately have on not only the industry for which it is intended, but also on the agency's own resources and capability," Sloan says.
In recent months, the level of activity at the section of EPA that oversees TSCA "has never been higher," says Richard Denison, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, an activist group. He refers to the agency's Office of Chemical Safety & Pollution Prevention, which changed its name from the Office of Pollution Prevention & Toxics last month.
"That's direct testament to the strength of the commitment emanating from the top of the agency," Denison tells C&EN. "Couple that with the administrator's consistently strong voice for TSCA reform, and it can be argued that her leadership on these issues is the strongest ever at EPA."
Jackson says her motivation for updating the federal chemical control program doesn't come from her years as an EPA employee.
"Believe it or not, with all my experience and all my time in the building, it's not informed by my insider's knowledge. It's actually informed by the outside world," Jackson explains.
"It came from trying to put my fingers on the pulse of what the average American cares about. I think there's huge grassroots concern and not just amongst environmentalists on this issue," she says. "I've talked to nurses, I've talked to religious leaders, I've talked to mothers' groups, autism groups, you just name it, and everyone's worried about the same set of issues.
"If you ask most people who don't call themselves environmentalists, 'What do you care about?' one of the things you'll hear is: 'There are a hundred-some chemicals in the average person's blood,' " she says. "Or, 'I don't understand whether I'm supposed to use plastic or not use plastic' and 'What about these endocrine disrupters?'
"All of that's the product of chemical engineering at its best and a society that is built around our ability to manipulate, on an industrial scale, methane into almost anything we want."
Jackson sees the efforts of EPA, Congress, activists, and the chemical sector on reforming the federal chemical management law as a response to the public's concerns. She predicts that most chemical manufacturers will embrace TSCA reform because otherwise, "they're not going to make money" because of product de-selection by retailers and consumers. "People really aren't interested in buying products that are continuing to poison them," she adds.
Meanwhile, Jackson sees raising people's awareness of why environmental protection is important as a key part of her mission as EPA administrator.
"Almost everyone has a very direct and personal stake in the environment. They just don't know it," she says. "Part of my job is getting people to understand that." For example, mothers might be concerned with the occurrence of asthma among children but might not see the link of this condition to air pollution, she says. Or local leaders seeking investors in their community may realize that building on green space is more attractive to many companies than cleaning up and redeveloping old industrial sites.
"I spend a lot of my time speaking to people of color, to women, to the elderly, to anybody who will listen, about the importance of environmentalism, to remind them about what an important cause and opportunity this is," Jackson says. "It needs to be a constant part of the job."