Earth Day 2011: Nation's Environmental Leader Makes Communities More Sustainable

On this 41st anniversary of Earth Day, Americans are reminded how they can take better care of their local landscapes. Host Michel Martin speaks with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson about the status of coastal restoration efforts in the Gulf, the EPA's video project: 'It's My Environment,' and what Jackson personally does to keep her home and community more sustainable.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Coming up, this is holy week for observant Christians. Today is Good Friday. It culminates in Easter this coming Sunday. A noted church historian will be with us in a few minutes to tell us how Easter observance has changed over the centuries. An Easter primer is coming up.

But first, today is also the 41st anniversary of Earth Day. And of course this nation continues to face a long list of environmental challenges from climate change to renewable energy to clean water, as well as the ongoing cleanup of the BP oil spill one year on. That was the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.

Joining us now to reflect on the oil spill and discuss Earth Day is the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson.

Administrator Jackson, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. LISA JACKSON (Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency): Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Could we start with the oil spill where you've just observed the one-year anniversary of the explosion that started it all? Do we have a sense of the totality of the damage there and how the restoration efforts are going?

Ms. JACKSON: I think we are starting to have a sense. You know, one year out gives us an opportunity to look at the immediate response, which I think overall was a large scale, certainly the largest scale environmental response ever in history of this country.

And a belief that, in general, it worked. I mean there were lots of fits and starts in stopping the well, but when you look at 200 million gallons of oil released into the Gulf, although we certainly saw some oil reach the shallows and shorelines, wetlands and beaches, it could have been so, so much worse.

So on that level we know, but when we talk about environmental damage, we have to look at the natural resources. And there we're still seeing a picture emerge. We know there's some oil still in the system, what that may do. Although it's at very low levels, it's not harming the marine life, will it have any long-term impacts. Those are the things we have to study.

MARTIN: You actually grew up in New Orleans.

Ms. JACKSON: I did.

MARTIN: And so much of that, you know, the culture, the food, the economy, so much of that is tied to the Gulf, and I'm just wondering, when you think about the task that is there, given how much you know the Gulf means to the people who grew up there, let alone the rest of the country, but people who grew up there, and I'm just wondering how it makes you feel.

Ms. JACKSON: When the spill was going on, it was the reason that I can understand so well how people felt because I don't think you could do much more that would really go to the heart of everything that region is about and have this ongoing release every day on TV with no answers about what that ultimate impact would be.

Today, a year later, we're able to say to people and I guess celebrate the fact that out of that tragedy we were able to stop a lot of oil from coming to shore. But we're also able to look forward to a better Gulf.

And I'm chair of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force and one of the things I hope comes out of that tragedy is a renewed emphasis and commitment in the region to a better Gulf, to coastal restoration, to ensuring that the recreational opportunities in Florida on the Panhandle or Alabama or Mississippi or Texas are also protected. That's really important.

MARTIN: What's the goal there, though? I mean, is it to say the goal two years out, five years out, is it to say that the Gulf will be restored to where we wouldn't have known that this happened? Or what is the goal of the task force? What's reasonable?

Ms. JACKSON: Actually, the task force is further out than that in some ways. You know, there's a natural resource restoration component under the law that says when you spill oil, you have to restore the resources, or at least invest in making them whole again. We all know it's almost impossible to recreate nature quickly. So that's one effort that's going on. And maybe one of the best ways to talk about the Gulf Coast ecosystem restoration task force is to talk about what I did a little bit earlier this week.

I took a helicopter ride down to Louisiana. We went over the Barataria Bay. We saw some places that still have oil where natural restoration is hoped - we're hoping will degrade that at oil. But then I landed at a place called Bayou Dupont, which is a restoration effort. There's about 600 acres of wetlands there, where there used to be open water just a year ago today.

There are people in the Louisiana coast who have been fighting for and funding and working across regional and all kinds of lines to get these kinds of projects done. That's what the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force is really about - making a better gulf. In Louisiana, that means making more wetlands, more marsh. In Florida or Alabama or Mississippi, that could mean something very different.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're speaking with Lisa Jackson. She is the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. We're marking the first anniversary of the BP oil spill, which happened earlier this week. And now we're going to talk about the 41st anniversary of Earth Day. So, Administrator Jackson, how would you like Americans to think about Earth Day?

Ms. JACKSON: Earth Day is something Americans did for themselves. It was Americans rising up 41 years ago because they felt that the environmental insults were so serious that it was affecting their health, literally unable to breathe, seeing water on fire. So what I hope Americans will do this Earth Day is remember that environmental issues are directly connected to public health issues.

Sometimes we think of the environment as something out there. But the environment is the air we breathe. It's directly related to asthma rates and bronchitis and heart attacks and stroke. And the water we drink. We have water issues still in this country, as developed and prosperous as we are.

MARTIN: One of the things that the EPA has done is launch a video project called It's My Environment. You're supposed to submit a video clip up to 10 seconds long about doing something for the environment and then you read and pass along a sign that says: It's My Environment. And apparently I think you're going to pick or somebody at the EPA is going to pick the best videos and put them together in a presentation.

I understand that submissions are being accepted until June 6th. I think we have a sample of one of the things that has been submitted.

(Soundbite of video submission)

Unidentified Child #1: It's my environment. We turn off what?

Unidentified Child #2: We turn off the water to get our soap.

MARTIN: Just if you couldn't hear, that we turn off the water to get our soap, which is always good advice.

Ms. JACKSON: OK.

MARTIN: Yeah. So you can see the first was actually very young. And what are you hoping to accomplish with this project?

Ms. JACKSON: Well, there's obviously a little bit of education, but it's also just awareness. Environmental protection is actually a very American value. We don't think about it and express it that way, but Earth Day was about Americans saying that part of what we expect is clean air, clean water, stewardship of our resources. We pass that on to our children, the idea that we want the earth to be there in good shape for them and for their children.

And so, this is an attempt to let our children think about it, but we also want adults and especially teenagers to think about it. This is a generation that's growing up green. And we want to continue to make those connections. Why do you turn off the water? It's not just about saving water, but recognizing that our water quality is directly related to storm water and runoff and making sure that when water goes it gets treated - that it's clean and healthy for everyone. So it goes all the way along the lines.

MARTIN: But speaking of values, two of your Republican predecessors recently wrote in The Washington Post that the EPA is under siege, their words, from Republicans, members of their party. Do you think that that's the case?

Ms. JACKSON: We hear words like defund. You know, I've seen people say we don't even need an EPA. Why are they there? So there's clearly, I think, special interest and lobbyists in Washington who started that mantra, because it's not coming from the American people. It's coming from somewhere else. It's coming from industry that I think still, sadly, in this country and only some of them think that the way to make money is to not protect the environment.

And that's just not what the American people have ever asked for. If you ask them whether they want jobs, they're going to say yes. Who wouldn't want a job? But if you ask them whether they should have to choose between job and clean water for their children or even for themselves, they're not going to accept that choice.

MARTIN: But what about people who do see a tradeoff between protecting the environment and economic growth? (Unintelligible) people could argue that that is in part what this fight in Congress is about - about funding the EPA. And also about your ability to pass regulations to address environmental issues. That's one of the arguments is whether the EPA's ability to regulate should be restricted. That's one of the initiatives.

So what about those who say that these are difficult economic times right now and the priority has to be economic growth, as opposed to environmental protection? What's your answer to that?

Ms. JACKSON: It's a false choice between economic growth and environmental protection. The only people who should be worried about a strong EPA are polluters, because the American people get protected. Their health is protected by the EPA.

Now, let me also say, I don't want to sound like we're, you know, oblivious to the fact that we have an impact potentially on the economy. When we update a standard, whether it'd be under the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act, you go through economic analysis and justification. And what we see is time after time, especially under the Clean Air Act, which is most under attack, the benefits of those regulations in terms of health cost avoided are well over the cost of the reg, 30 to 40 to 1. So, $30 to $40 of health protection and cost-avoided benefits to $1 spent.

So it can be done. The history of this country, 40 years is that we have strong environmental protection and we've had one to four economic growth, not one single recession or issue economically has been caused by the environment. And so, what I say is that we have to look at what's real, not at dooms day predictions of what might happen. And then make good public policy around that.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go, can you tell us some of the things that you do on a daily basis to make your environment more sustainable? I'm assuming your security detail frowns on your biking to work.

Ms. JACKSON: No, I do sometimes take mass transit. But oftentimes - I own a hybrid car. We live in an area that development is compact rather than spread out. We insisted on moving to a place - and this is actually more about quality of life than anything else, where we have access to the metro system.

And our entire family uses it. You know, all those things from making sure that we scoop up after our dog when we walk them, to how we get around, is part of, for us, a very livable community. I have teenagers. They love the fact that they can walk to a store, run to the grocery, run to movies and they don't have to rely on getting into the car or mom or dad having to drive them.

MARTIN: How about turning off the air conditioning in August?

Ms. JACKSON: Yeah, well, that's a little hard in Washington, D.C. I won't say that we try to do that, but we do - we are not big heat people, but that's more because none of us like it. So, we wear a lot of, lot of sweaters and then we splurge a little on air conditioning in August in D.C.

MARTIN: OK. So, your personal cap and trade, huh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Lisa Jackson is the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. We caught up with her on a trip to the Philadelphia area. She happens to be the first African-American to fill that post. And we caught up with her for Earth Day. Administrator Jackson, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. JACKSON: Thanks for having me, and happy Earth Day.

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