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EPA's Jackson strives to bring minorities to environment table

Sandra Larson | 12/7/2010, 10:38 p.m.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson at the New England regional EPA office on Dec. 3. Later in the day she spoke at a conference at Harvard University honoring the 40th anniversary of the EPA. Sandra Larson

African Americans and other minority groups often bear the brunt of pollution caused by industry currently or formerly located in their neighborhoods, yet these groups have been conspicuously absent from the environmental movement over the years.

Lisa P. Jackson is the first African American to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and she says she has a mission to reach groups not traditionally involved in environmentalism.

Jackson spoke with the Banner earlier this month at the EPA’s New England regional office in downtown Boston before heading to Cambridge to speak at a conference at Harvard University marking the EPA’s 40th anniversary.

“Too often environmentalism is seen as a place for people who are wealthy and have time on their hands,” she said.

The environmental movement began in the same era as the civil rights movement, she noted, and for many blacks environmentalism may have taken a back seat to desegregation and civil rights struggles. In addition, “all environmentalism is local,” she said. Those who grow up in cities without frequent contact with nature may feel less connected to its protection.

But Jackson wants to counter the notion that caring about the quality of one’s environment is a luxury to be chosen or not.

“If you breathe,” she said, “even if you don’t call yourself an environmentalist, you care about the work that happens under the Clean Air Act, and you care if it’s done well.”

The EPA was established Dec. 2, 1970, and the Clean Air Act came into being the same year. The law paved the way for some of the research findings that are now taken for granted, such as the hazards of lead paint or secondhand smoke or for landmark policy changes that cleaned up air around the planet.

While today’s lead warnings are likely to address peeling lead paint or imported toys, in the 1970s the culprit was leaded gasoline.

The EPA acted to reduce and then ban lead in gasoline, resulting in an 89 percent drop in airborne lead exposure, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Aspen Institute, titled “10 Ways EPA Has Strengthened America.” The report also says blood lead levels in adults and children have dropped by 80 percent between the late 1970s and today.

Of course, those dramatic statistics are averages. Some people still live and work in environments posing health hazards from poorly maintained dwellings built before lead paint was banned in 1978, soil still contaminated with lead, or from a host of other toxic materials.

“Many communities of color disproportionately suffer from unhealthy air or unclean water, or ‘superfund’ or ‘brownfield’ sites in their community,” said Jackson, using the government’s terms for sites of heavy industrial pollution requiring special cleanup action. “We want to reach the African American community and let them know that EPA works for them.”

She mentioned the “environmental justice tours” she’s taken this year, meeting with African American communities and increasingly with other groups such as Hispanics, rural communities and agricultural workers who suffer the brunt of pesticide exposure. “All those people need a seat at the table with what we normally think of as environmentalists,” she asserted.