In what has been billed as a first official visit to New Orleans, Environmental Protection Agency chief administrator Lisa Jackson today  addressed the National Brownfields Conference 2009 at the Morial Convention Center.

Jackson called herself a “daughter of the city” (she grew up and attended school through college in New Orleans) but gave an otherwise general 15-minute speech about brownfields, those blighted blotches of land where industrial factories and plants were once located. The greater New Orleans area has no shortage of the polluted sites, especially after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita effectively closed many of the factories and plants while spreading  toxic leftovers such as lead, arsenic and PCBs throughout the soil of much of the city.

In terms of environmental justice, Jackson emphasized that minority communities often disproportionally suffer from lack of environmental protection from pollution. She made these announcements in terms of environmental justice:

  • The appointment of Lisa H. Garcia as Senior Advisor for Environmental Justice, a role that will ensure that “environmental justice issues are elevated to the highest levels of the agency, [and] “to make sure that ej issues are fully integrated into the fabric of the EPA”
  • The appointment of Patrick Sungwook Chang as Senior Counsel for External Civil Rights, where he’ll focus on EPA’s backlog of Title VI complaints while helping reform the Title VI program
  • A program featuring ten “environmental justice showcase communities” across the nation that will help “raise awareness about the discrepancies we see in environmental protection.”

Garcia was Chief Advocate of Environmental Justice and Equity at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, as well as co-chair of New York  Governor David Paterson’s Environmental Justice Interagency Task Force. Chang comes from the U.S. Department of Justice, where he served as the Deputy Section Chief for the coordination and review section of the Civil Rights Division.

That environmental justice is receiving  priority attention from EPA is always a welcome announcement. Garcia will be working with the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, headed by Charles Lee, but will report directly to Jackson, kind of like a czar.   (We can only hope she won’t be attacked because she has czar-qualities, and advocates for environmental justice, much like a certain Van Jones. )

However, there is still something to be said about Jackson’s advisor picks, and how many of them hail from the northeast New York-New Jersey area where she most recently worked and lived. Having regional diversity in the President’s Cabinet in terms of environmental policy would add much value. Environmental problems in the Gulf Coast are not the same as those in northeast —brownfields problems in the Gulf Coast are not the same as those in the northeast.

Perhaps the EPA can find more people from the greater New Orleans and Gulf Coast area to add to the list of senior advisors so that the unique challenges faced here will get adequate focus.

— Brentin Mock