[for version with links to supporting documents, see:
Obama US EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson visited NJ yesterday for whirlwind press stops in Newark, Ringwood, and Pompton Lakes (the Ringwood visit was not mentioned in the itinerary of the official EPA press advisory). Along with the press conferences and photo ops, Jackson took the opportunity to meet with small groups of residents to listen to their concerns. The Pompton Lakes meeting was private and not open to press.
The NJ press corps played right along and gave Jackson exactly what she was seeking – headlines, photo’s, and generally non-critical stories that echoed her message (see Bergen Record Pompton Lakes; and Bergen Record Ringwood and Star Ledger coverage).
I want to focus briefly on the policy and then on the politics of this visit with respect to the Pompton Lakes site.
Jackson’s message was consistent with what she did for over 3 years as NJ DEP Commissioner and thus far as head of US EPA: create an appearance that she and EPA are acting aggressively, responding to the concerns of the community, and holding polluters accountable (all while delivering little to nothing of substance, and sometimes doing exactly the opposite – see: WHY LISA JACKSON SHOULD NOT RUN EPA – Disastrous Record in New Jersey Bodes Ill for Reforming EPA).
Bob Spiegel of Edison Wetlands Association quote got it exactly right in the Bergen Record story:
“The problem is that the EPA and DEP keep asking DuPont to do things about the cleanup. What they need to do is start telling DuPont to do things about the cleanup,… At what point do the agencies start using their authority to direct DuPont to act?”
EPA has tremendous legal power and financial and technical resources under Superfund, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and the Clean Water Act. The fact of the matter is that Jackson’s visit did nothing to enforce this legal power or deploy EPA resources.
For example, Jackson refused to commit to listing the site on the Superfund “National Priorities List” (NPL). But the Pompton Lakes site does not have to be listed on the NPL before EPA can take immediate action, allocate resources, or pursue enforcement actions against Dupont.
Similarly, EPA has long been involved at the Dupont site under RCRA’s “Corrective Action” program. Yet despite this authority, EPA has issued no enforcement orders that compel Dupont to do anything, or imposed any RCRA fines and penalties to punish Dupont for what they have done to Pompton Lakes.
And as a result of huge off site water quality impairment and sediment pollution, EPA could hammer Dupont with Clean Water Act enforcement actions (i.e. fines, penalties, cleanup Orders), including issuing Natural Resource Damage restoration and compensation Orders.
But Jackson’s only written materials were press releases, not EPA enforcement Orders or litigation.
In terms of responsiveness to the community, there was muted and implied criticism in the Bergen Record story:
Pompton Lakes residents and officials said they did not recall Jackson coming to the borough to discuss the DuPont contamination when she had been DEP commissioner, but appreciated her presence there Friday.
That unstated criticism was included in the Bergen Record coverage of the Ringwood visit which noted that the meeting with residents there did not focus on the Ford site cleanup issues but “focused more on personal, family issues”. So this quote is about as close to criticism as it gets for a member of “the family” as fellow Ramapough Mountain Indians referred to Jackson (see this photo & story for the context here – Jackson politically used Ringwood residents during her confirmation hearing):
“I’m glad she’s still thinking about us,” said Jack Walker, another resident. “For a while there, we haven’t heard anything and I thought maybe we were forgotten.”
In terms of the larger political context, Jackson’s visit can be interpreted as motivated by at several different objectives.
First, Jackson could be engaging in the typical and relatively harmless political dog and pony show that has gone on for years at NJ’s Superfund sites.
But that kind of cynical political stunt is NOT harmless and is especially inappropriate right now because the residents of Pompton Lakes are facing a cancer cluster and demanding that EPA take over the cleanup due to failures by DEP and deep distrust of Dupont, who have not been honest with them. (see this for Dupont’s power at EPA)
Residents are expecting independent and aggressive EPA intervention, not typical political games. And that’s exactly why Jackson’s personal involvement is totally inappropriate because for 7+ years she did nothing as a DEP Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner to force Dupont to cleanup the site. During Jackson’s tenure at DEP, vapor intrusion issues were being mismanaged by NJ DEP. These failures led directly to Pompton Lakes exposures.
Jackson can not be the independent objective broker the community seeks at EPA because she has a direct conflict of interest, having been involved as a decision-maker at NJ DEP. That’s why Jackson was recused from any involvement in NJ issues as EPA Administrator. Her involvement now undermines EPA independence and creates the appearance of politicization.
The Bergen Record previously reported on the Lisa Jackson recusal in a 9/1/09 story (below)- I didn’t see any time limit in that story:
“Jackson said she agreed when she took over the EPA to recuse herself from involvement with any actions she took as New Jersey’s commissioner. A spokesman said the recusal is designed to prevent Jackson from influencing EPA employees to act one way or another regarding New Jersey.” (see: EPA chief’s spin on DEP audit)
While one might think that NJ would benefit by having a former NJ DEP Commissioner head up EPA, actually, the opposite is the case. There were subtle yet profound benefits for NJ associated of Jackson’s recusal, which tended to empower EPA Regional Administrator Judy Enck. Enck comes out of the NY environmental advocacy community and has roots in Governor Eliot Spitzer’s progressive approach to public policy, particularity with respect to the important role of regulation and vigorous enforcement. Jackson simply does not share that progressive philosophy or environmental advocacy experience and commitment. As I wrote on December 11, 2009:
Enck’s boss, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was previously NJDEP Commissioner and Chief of Staff to Governor John Corzine. Jackson is recused and can not participate in EPA decisions in NJ. This provides Enck more autonomy and control in NJ within the EPA chain of command, yet it also requires that she avoid any appearance of favoritism in NJ. (See: New Obama EPA Regional Administrator Plants a Flag in NJ)
Or, Jackson could be sending a strategic political shot across the bow of the Christie Administration on behalf of the Obama EPA. (see: Christie’s Environmental Rollback Agenda Receiving National Attention)
Christie said during the campaign that he looked forward to battles with the Obama EPA – Christie said (watch it on YouTube)
“I’ve got a feeling that you will see, come January 2010, a lot of battles between the Christie administration DEP and the Obama administration EPA.”
His actions thus far tread heavily on compliance with EPA delegated or funded programs. (See: Christie Regulatory Czar Given Power and Tools to Rollback Environmental and Public Health Protections
But if this were Jackson’s motivation, again she played a very weak hand by delivering nothing of substance and failing to focus on or hold Christie accountable for actions he already has taken (see: CHRISTIE OUTLINES RADICAL ECO-ROLLBACK IN NEW JERSEY – Privatization Specialist Tapped to Head Department of Environmental Protection)
Either way, looks like more of the same old same old from Lisa Jackson: politics and symbolism over policy and substance.