Soon after President Barack Obama tapped Lisa P. Jackson to take the reins at the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the agency announced it would be re-reviewing a commonly used farming pesticide – atrazine – and its potential health effects.
This after the EPA, during the term of President George W. Bush in 2006, declared that atrazine posed no such health risks.
Some critics of the re-review say it's an activist-driven action.
So what's the story? Who, if anyone, is guiding Jackson's decisions?
The EPA says proper stewardship of public health and new scientific research that points to potential health effects of atrazine is the reason for the re-review.
The outcome of the re-review could be crucial to a series of proposed class actions pending in Madison County Circuit Court and in federal court in the Southern District of Illinois. The suits against makers and distributors of atrazine claim the chemical runs off farm fields and contaminates drinking water supplies.
One of the defendants seeks to dismiss the suits, arguing that plaintiffs have failed to allege how levels of its atrazine violate standing law and how those levels can be tied back to the company.
While Jackson was quoted in the New York Times as saying at her confirmation hearing in January 2009 that, "Science must be the backbone of what EPA does," some have criticized Jackson as bowing to either of both extremes in the environmental debate – industry and environmental activists.
A month prior to her confirmation hearing, a group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility pleaded with Obama to reconsider appointing Jackson to head the EPA.
In a news release, the group said that while Jackson headed the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, she kept strange company – with industry leaders and lobbyists.
Meanwhile, the group says, the state saw an increase in the contamination of drinking water and mismanagement of toxic waste clean up under Jackson's watch.
The group chided Jackson for appointing a lobbyist for the New Jersey Builders Association as an assistant commissioner to deal with water quality and land use permits. The group added that Jackson convened an "industry-dominated task force" to overhaul the state's pollution guidelines.
"While Ms. Jackson has a compelling biography, little of what occurred during her 31-month tenure commends her for promotion," the group's executive director, Jeff Ruch, said in the release. "Under her watch, New Jersey's environment only got dirtier, incredible as that may seem."
Ruch went on to characterize Jackson as "a pliant technocrat who will follow orders."
"If past is prologue, one cannot reasonably expect meaningful change if she is appointed to lead EPA," Ruch said.
He added, "Given what actually transpired in New Jersey, putting Ms. Jackson in a key position for guiding a national global warming effort would be imprudent. The Obama transition should take a little more time to find the right choice for this critical job."
Nevertheless, according to Jackson's biography on the EPA Web site, New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine declared after her confirmation: "The American people have gained a tireless public servant and a tenacious guardian of the environment."
But not all Jackson's critics suspect she's partial to industry.
Dr. Gilbert Ross, medical director for the consumer education group American Council on Science and Health, said that the group suspects Jackson's call to have another look at atrazine is nothing more than part of an "anti-chemical," "anti-business" agenda.
In a column Ross published in Forbes magazine, he declared: "This effort will do nothing to promote public health while raising needless anxiety and spurring expensive, useless regulation and litigation."
Ross said in the column that the overall push by the EPA to take another look at a wide variety of chemicals has the environmental lobby in a position to push hard because there is a sense that industry fears heavy penalties for non-compliance with any new regulations coming down the pike. Ross cites that the American Chemistry Council has endorsed the EPA's push.
"Too bad ACC thereby implies that its member companies' products have been poisoning our kids all these years," Ross said. "That isn't the case; nonetheless they now want to be perceived as very sorry, eager to mend their ways and thankful for the EPA's help."
Ross added, "If the anti-chemical activists and their colleagues at the EPA actually cared about (public health) issues, they would downplay their chemophobia in the best interests of humanity. Unfortunately, with their goal in sight, that is most unlikely to happen."
The first African American ever to head the EPA, Jackson also served as New Jersey Gov. Corzine's chief of staff following her stint as head of that state's DEP, according to her EPA biography. Before she was named commissioner of the DEP, she was its assistant commissioner for compliance and enforcement and land use management.
Prior to working for the New Jersey DEP, Jackson spent 16 years with the EPA in Washington, D.C. and New York City.
She was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in New Orleans and holds degrees in chemical engineering from Princeton University and Tulane University's School of Chemical Engineering.
Natalie Roy, executive director of the Clean Water Network, called Jackson a "breath of fresh air," compared to the previous administration.
"Our experience thus far has been that she and her senior staff, particularly the water division, appear committed and anxious to be proactive on water quality and quality concerns."
Roy went on to say that Jackson and the EPA could be doing more to address the nation's "water crisis."
"The agency...needs to take aggressive measures to protect all of our nation's waters including rivers, streams, lakes, coastal areas and wetlands," Roy said in a statement.
"We hope that in the next year, Jackson can follow the model of some of the earlier EPA Administrators, throw partisanship out the window and focus on addressing our country's major environmental issues which include global warming and water adaptation issues among others."