Obama Transparency Rhetoric Trickles Down to EPA

The new administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Lisa Jackson, pledged in a memo to staff to "uphold the values of scientific integrity, rule of law, and transparency every day." In the memo, Jackson also highlighted five priorities for the EPA, including reducing greenhouse gases and strengthening EPA's chemicals management and risk assessment programs.

Jackson, former head of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, took control of the embattled agency on Jan. 26. In a memo to EPA employees, Jackson laid out the philosophy, as articulated by President Obama, that she plans to apply to her tenure as administrator. Transparency and respect for the scientific analyses of EPA staff were included as key values. Jackson cited former EPA administrator William Ruckleshaus' commitment to run the agency as if it were "in a fishbowl," with its actions and motives available for all to observe.

"I pledge that we will carry out the work of the Agency in public view so that the door is open to all interested parties and that there is no doubt why we are acting and how we arrived at our decisions," said Jackson in the memo. She also embraced Ruckelshaus' promise "to communicate with everyone from the environmentalists to those we regulate, and we will do so as openly as possible."

Jackson promised EPA employees that science will be the "backbone" of EPA programs. Citing the damage that can be done to scientific integrity, Jackson promised not to "disguise" policy decisions as scientific findings, an accusation frequently leveled at the Bush EPA. Jackson stated, "I pledge that I will not compromise the integrity of EPA's experts in order to advance a preference for a particular regulatory outcome." According to the memo, "When scientific judgments are suppressed, misrepresented or distorted by political agendas, Americans can lose faith in their government to provide strong public health and environmental protection."

The EPA during the Bush administration came under frequent attack for allowing politics to distort and override the findings of agency scientists. The pledges of transparency and scientific integrity represent a clear move by the new administrator to break from the policies of the previous EPA administration.

The principles laid out in the memo echo Jackson's testimony during her Senate confirmation hearing. In her opening remarks, Jackson stated that "President-elect Obama has affirmed two core values that he expects EPA to uphold during his Administration: scientific integrity and the rule of law. He has also made it clear we will operate with unparalleled transparency and openness. I pledge to uphold those values."

In addition to outlining the core values that will guide her tenure, Jackson highlighted several priorities that will receive her "personal attention." The five issues are reducing greenhouse gases, improving air quality, managing chemical risks, cleaning up hazardous waste sites, and protecting waters. Jackson specifically referred to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) when highlighting the need for strengthened chemicals risk management.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently added EPA's TSCA-related programs to its list of federal high-risk programs, which are programs in need of broad-based management transformation to improve their effectiveness.

The values espoused in the new administrator's memo may help to ease concerns over Jackson's commitment to transparency raised prior to her confirmation hearing. On the day of Jackson's swearing in, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), one of Jackson's more vocal critics, sent a letter urging Jackson to translate the promises of openness and scientific integrity into concrete and enforceable policies. PEER listed several specific recommended policy changes, including protections for government whistleblowers and eliminating "gag orders" on agency scientists. Despite the promising rhetoric of Jackson's initial memo, no specific actions were proposed or committed to on the administrator's first day.

Jackson pledged "to follow the rule of law." While acknowledging the discretion granted the EPA to implement environmental laws, she also recognized the authority of Congress and the courts. "When a court has determined EPA's responsibilities under our governing statutes, EPA cannot turn a blind eye to the court's decision or procrastinate in complying." The EPA had been heavily criticized during the Bush administration for failing to regulate greenhouse gases with its authority under the Clean Air Act, especially following the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision explicitly stating the agency's authority and obligation to do so.

During her confirmation hearing, Jackson was asked what process would be best to review previous EPA decisions to identify instances where science had been compromised. Jackson responded that a strong inspector general (IG) offers the best mechanism for such an evaluation. The EPA inspector general position is currently vacant, with the IG's duties being performed by the deputy IG, who was himself investigated by Congress for his plan to cut the number of inspectors working under him.

Jackson directed her employees to hold her accountable for her promises. "If ever you feel I am not meeting this commitment, I expect you to let me know," she said.

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