The epic disaster took a huge toll on local business; it killed fish, birds, and marine mammals by the thousands, disrupting the region's delicate ecosystem, possibly for centuries to come. It also blew the EPA debate wide open: Was there too much environmental regulation on industry or (as the oil spill seemed to indicate) not enough? Would requiring businesses to adopt new, cleaner technologies spur economic growth (as the EPA believes) or send jobs fleeing overseas (a conservative refrain)? The following fall, when Republicans took control of the House and expanded their reach in the Senate, it wasn't surprising that the agency would be on their hit list of "big government" factions that should have their sails trimmed, although no one anticipated the degree to which the EPA would be singled out.
Within months, not only did the House pass a bill to cut the EPA's budget by nearly a third (a saber-rattling measure unlikely to get through the Senate), it also proposed a ban on the agency's ability to regulate greenhouse gases. So began a four-week period, from mid-February to mid-March, when Jackson was called to testify before congressional committees no fewer than seven times—more than any other federal agency head. More than Kathleen Sebelius, whose domain includes the president's ferociously contested healthcare bill; more than Janet Napolitano, who oversees that hysteria-inducing concern, homeland security. And the hearings were often pointless, even loopy, with congressmen accusing Jackson of wanting to regulate everything from "cow flatulence" to farm dust and spilled milk. During one House hearing, Illinois Republican Tim Johnson called her agency "the poster child for usurpation of legislative authority" and asked Jackson if she even had a background in agriculture. "I eat food and I eat meat and I drink milk," she deadpanned. During another hearing, Texas Republican Joe Barton, whose campaign was largely financed by gas and utility companies, accused the Obama administration and the EPA of trying "to put the American economy in a straitjacket, costing us millions of jobs and billions of dollars a year." In yet another face-off, Barton questioned Jackson's estimate that power plants emit "tons and tons" of mercury. "You might want to check your record on that. The amount [from] a given power plant is in pounds per year, not tons per year," he said. "Per plant, yes, sir, but if you aggregate them and add them up, you get pounds, and two thousand pounds equals a ton," Jackson said, deploying her much-admired cool under fire. (Some see it as her secret weapon, although Jackson says, "There is no secret weapon. The only thing is the truth, and the idea that this agency's job is not a nefarious one: It means protection of the environment, because the environment has such a huge impact on public health.")
Undaunted, on March 16 Jackson announced that, as part of the Clean Air Act, the EPA was proposing limits on the amount of mercury, arsenic, nickel, and other toxic by-products power plants routinely release into the environment—emissions that have been shown to aggravate asthma, cause neurological problems in fetuses, and trigger heart attacks. The prospect of yet more costly regulation incited a predictable uproar. But even with lawmakers trying everything they can to curtail the EPA's efforts, Jackson is up for the fight. "The politics are one thing," she says. "I got used to tough politics in New Jersey," where she was commissioner of that state's Department of Environmental Protection. "And I like the give-and-take of a real democracy. But I like hearing from real people, not special interests. It's what I came to D.C. to do—to ensure that the EPA protects the average American, not corporate profits. The hardest fights are the ones that I see happening in a 'fact-free zone.' Facts matter. And politics shouldn't trump science and public health."
Among the other challenges she's squaring up for: Jackson is determined to protect air quality and reduce greenhouse gas pollution, and to restore health to the Chesapeake Bay, a major waterway currently being smothered by nitrogen and phosphorous from agricultural runoff and air pollution. The cleanup is now 25 years behind schedule; House Republicans are proposing a 20 percent reduction in the funds it would require.
Jackson's to-do list is ambitious, particularly given how much time she could be spending defending herself. But that's not her style. She'd rather stay focused on the things that matter. "Our challenges are serious," she says. "The longer we wait to deal with our deteriorating atmosphere, the harder and more expensive it may get to address it. I am also a woman of faith, so I believe that we have a moral obligation to care for creation and future generations.
"The conundrum is that the richer and more prosperous we become, the more we think that the environment is all taken care of," Jackson says. It's simply not the case. "I have seen land completely ravaged by pollution. Environmental protection is not a spectator sport."