Lisa Jackson, who President-elect Barack Obama is expected to name Monday evening to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is already being hailed as a historic choice. The former head of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and transition team member would be the first African-American EPA chief, and supporters have praised her work ethic, approachability and efforts to regulate greenhouse gases in New Jersey.
But Jackson's critics, including a senior scientist who quit her department in frustration, say she has been too close to industry, withheld information from the public and fallen well short of the pledge she made when taking office in February 2006 to fix the state's beleaguered toxic waste program.
"The most important thing we are doing is developing a new ranking system to prioritize sites so that we focus our resources on the worst cases, those that present the greatest risk to public health and the environment," said Jackson in state senate testimony (PDF) in October 2006.
But two years into Jackson’s tenure, the new system for cleaning up New Jersey's 16,000 abandoned toxic waste sites still hasn't been deployed.
"She identified this as her highest priority, but she never followed through," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER. "This failure to perform risk-based ranking for determining cleanup priorities has contributed to the belated discovery of contaminated schools and day care centers."
A NJDEP spokesperson said the system is now being tested and should be in place by Autumn of 2009. Jackson herself did not respond to ProPublica's repeated requests for an interview.
In a report released this summer, the EPA's inspector general slammed New Jersey's failure to clean up several toxic waste sites in a timely manner, and accused the state's environmental agency of going easy on polluters and failing to seek necessary support from the EPA. The report said the department bore at least partial responsibility for "not implement[ing] agreements on cleanup milestones, Agency responsibilities, and enforcement actions."
The report even recommended that the EPA take over as the lead cleanup agency at seven sites -- a surprising recommendation, since the inspector general has consistently bashed the Bush administration's handling of Superfund sites.
"If the EPA is saying that New Jersey's enforcement is bad, you know there is a serious problem,” says Robert Spiegel, executive director of the Edison Wetlands Association, a New Jersey based non-profit that closely monitors several Superfund sites throughout the state. Spiegel says he had urged Jackson to take more immediate action on some sites, and that Jackson's field staff had done the same, but their pleas had been ignored.
New Jersey, long a center for the chemical manufacturing industry, has gained notoriety in the environmental community for its widespread pollution.
A 2007 report by the Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit investigative journalism organization in Washington, D.C., found that New Jersey has 115 Superfund sites -- more than any other state. Since the Superfund program was established in 1980, only 22 of New Jersey's sites have been cleaned up to the point where they can be removed from the EPA's National Priorities List, the EPA's list of the most hazardous waste sites in the country.
Jackson has long talked about repairing the state's cleanup effort. In a formal response to the inspector general report, the state's director of hazardous waste said that "New Jersey's new proposed reforms may be a model for other states when looking to improve their cleanup programs."
Jackson has also supported a controversial Corzine-backed proposal to outsource the department's cleanup efforts to consultants, which would potentially mean cleanups conducted by groups that also work for the companies responsible for the contaminated sites.