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EPA Chief Lisa Jackson speaks at NAACP convention in Los Angeles

July 24, 2011 |  4:59 pm

Jackson U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson spoke to the NAACP National Convention at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Sunday about the impact of pollution on minority communities, an issue that will be also be explored during a Monday afternoon panel: "The air we breathe: taking action against toxic exposures in African American communities" from 2 to 4 p.m.

Before her speech, Jackson spoke with The Times about her approach to environmental justice.

Q: What does environmental justice mean to you?

A: It is one of my priorities and I define it fairly broadly. The simplest way to describe it is it’s really the unfinished business of the EPA; there are still communities in this country where there’s a disproportionate collection of smokestacks and tailpipes. Those sources of pollution mean that the communities that live around them have more exposure to pollution than other communities. Since air blows and water flows you can't really clean up this nation’s air and water without addressing those communities as well. We know about them and have really strong efforts underway in those communities, but I would like to see progress and the progress continue.

Q: What is being done to address pollution in minority communities?

A: You have to do it on a number of levels. Probably the one that is most germane here is air pollution. L.A. knows as well as anyone that air pollution is not just a problem for the environment, it’s a public health threat. Dirty air means premature death. Dirty air means respiratory illnesses, most notable asthma, but a number of respiratory ailments that are made worse on bad air days, and we’ve had a lot of that this summer, although not here in lovely L.A.

We have a study, a peer reviewed study, that said $2 trillion in healthcare costs saved from implementation of the Clean Air Act from 1990 to 2020. Usually that number stops people in their tracks. So implementing the Clean Air Act is not only because it’s the right thing to do, it’s to save lives, to make our children healthier and address issues for the elderly and people with health impairments.

For most Americans, though, the No. 1 environmental issue is water.  We have about 92% of Americans have water that meets federal standards. That means 8% of Americans in this day and age do not. That’s way too high. Those folks are concentrated on Indian land and along our border with Mexico and in rural areas of the country where people really struggle to meet federal standards. It’s not acceptable for anybody not to have clean drinking water.

In the broader picture, the work we’ve done it’s not just the water we drink -- it’s the loss of wetlands, which is even more critical now. Besides the ecological benefits, they’re also sponges. We see as the climate changes what’s going to happen with flooding. Loss of wetlands makes us that much less able to deal with flooding.

Q: Are those minority issues -- not just clean air and water in urban areas but also wetland preservation?

A:  Remember, I grew up in New Orleans. So I always tell people my mother, who never really understood much about the environment in terms of what I did, it really came home for her after Hurricane Katrina. It became very much widely known in the city that the loss of the wetlands south of the city had really contributed to the severity of the damage and the lives lost, the death toll, because the wetlands form a barrier for storm and dissipate some of their energy. There used to be miles and miles of wetlands that used to act as a first break, and they weren’t there.

And remember that the most low-lying communities, the least desirable communities, are often the poorer communities -- the land on the other side of the tracks, the land down by the river -- was what was left, especially in parts of the South, for African Americans. So it’s very much of an environmental justice issue. A lot of times people think well all you care about are salamanders and frogs. Well, we do, certainly, but we also care about them because they play such an important role in keeping people safe.

L.A. has done a lot of work to highlight the importance of doing work to deal with the corridors of transportation. Our country also historically has communities that are poorer next to major transportation arteries. The big sources of air pollution in our country are power plants and the way we get around, the way we move goods.

Q: The EPA recently granted California an extension until 2015 to meet the 1997 air quality standards-- won't that have a disproportionate harmful impact on minority communities?

A:  We believe that it’s our job to oversee state programs. California has really strong programs compared to other places in this country, but they also have really big problems and challenges and have been a it a long time.

There’s a couple reasons why more time makes good sense.

Cars are getting cleaner, due to President Obama’s clean car deal. Fleets turn over. Cars will get even cleaner from 2017 to 2025.

Part of the reason you do that is because California has been a leader in making cars cleaner knowing that is a real key to getting air cleaner.

Trucks are getting cleaner. We’re coming out soon with new standards for heavy-duty vehicles.

There are two things that EPA has done that I think will have a tremendous impact on communities around transportation corridors, including shipping.

Number one is that now there’s 200 nautical miles around our nation’s coastline [where] ships have to switch to low-sulfur fuel. With that single change, and we made it nationwide, and we are leading the efforts in the international maritime organization to make it worldwide, we estimate will save lives along all of our port cities. For example, here in California as far inland as Kansas because of how the wind blows from California across the country. It’s called the emissions control area, or ECA. California had been trying to do it and it is now the standard.

The second thing is cleaner cars, which California had been pushing for and this president ordered us to look back at the California waiver and eventually grant it -- which means cleaner cars for California but also, I think, has led to a revitalization of the American car industry, because the American car industry is building cars that Americans want to buy but that are also very frugal in using gasoline.

There’s more to do, without doubt. But I also think when you look at something like the ozone standard, setting the standard is important, but the way that standard is really going to play out here in California is in permitting decisions in power plants (California doesn’t have any coal-fired powers, it’s pretty clean), and in transportation.

Q: Another environmental justice issue here in California has been toxic landfills such as those in the towns of Kettleman City and Buttonwillow. Activists and residents there say they feel the EPA has failed to address their complaints for the past 16 years and they have recently sued the EPA -- what can you tell us about EPA's response?

A:  When we got in we did our own audit of our entire office of civil rights.  We knew we had this backlog of a couple of dozen Title VI complaints under the EEO laws. That’s only a small part of what was necessary to fix our office of civil rights. And I have committed the agency and feel very good about the fact that the agency is on the pathway to get to a robust office of civil rights that deals with external complaints in a timely manner and a fair manner.

The complaint was 16 years old when the Obama administration came to be. So, yes, we have recently had those activists sue. We were in negotiations with them and they chose to sue. We are going to continue talking to them about potential remedies and we’re not going to stop working on the case. But certainly I respect their right in a democratic society to make that decision.

We are working on each and every one of those complaints [in the backlog]. We are working with the department of justice. And on the other side, I think we are well on the way to implementing environmental justice standards, we call them plan EJ 2014.

Our goal there is that environmental justice be part of every decision-making process at EPA -- when we’re writing a rule, when we’re doing enforcement -- to hopefully cut down on new claims in the future. I do think it is one of the failures of the EPA not to be able to do anything with those claims for such a long time. And I am committed to clearing the backlog. But just clearing the backlog will not solve the issue.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Photo: Lisa Jackson at the Los Angeles Convention Center Sunday as she prepared to address the NAACP national convention. Credit: Molly Hennessy-Fiske.