Can the EPA’s Lisa Jackson Rally Black Communities Around the Environment?

Although environmental harm is disproportionately concentrated in low-income communities and communities of color, so far the green movement has largely been one of white people. The EPA’s latest top gun, Lisa Jackson, is its first African American administrator and also the first EPA administrator unafraid to speak frankly about the important overlap between environmentalism and race.

Although leaders tout the promise of green jobs uplifting urban populations, this heyday hasn’t arrived yet. Instead, the environmental movement has so far failed to meaningfully engage communities of color, though these communities often bear the brunt of environmental sins such as toxic dumping, contamination, landfills and plants that wealthy NIMBYs fought off. For the most part, typical environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace have not addressed domestic environmental justice issues, or have only done so narrowly.

Jackson has personal motivation to attack these issues. After growing up in New Orleans’ along cancer alley, her mother’s 9th Ward home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, a crisis whose human toll was made worse by the dense, low income demographic living in environmentally sensitive areas, such as below-sea level wetlands. Perhaps because of these experiences and personal drive, Jackson has made numerous public commitments to prioritizing environmental justice initiatives. In a statement to Congress, Jackson said, “We have begun a new era of outreach and protection for communities historically underrepresented in environmental decision making. We are building strong working relationships with tribes, communities of color, economically distressed cities and towns, young people and others, but this is just a start. We must include environmental justice principles in all of our decisions.”

Jackson has already taken action to change the tone of the EPA on environmental justice. She has made numerous public statements linking civil rights, environmental protection, and economic growth. Jackson successfully identifies the negative economic harm that results from environmental injustice. Speaking to the National Association of Black Journalists in 2009, she explained that toxins in low-income communities exacerbate health issues where there is a particular lack of healthcare coverage, driving up costs in ERs where they seek treatment. She points to the benefits not only of green jobs, but of the jobs that could be created to clean up toxic dumping in urban neighborhoods.

So far, Jackson has made good on these promises, and the EPA is springing back from its repression under Bush. Jackson has continued Obama’s work-on-everything-all-at-once-strategy. Under her leadership, the EPA has finally initiated the regulation of CO2, put roadblocks in mountaintop mining operations, allowed states to regulate tailpipe emissions, breathed new life into Superfund cleanup efforts and has begun to foster relationships with high-risk communities and youth. Here’s to hoping that Lisa Jackson can use the EPA to push the US irrevocably into the green revolution we’ve been anticipating.

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