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Corzine's chief of staff to head EPA

President-elect Barack Obama is set to nominate New Jersey's Lisa P. Jackson, Gov. Corzine's chief of staff and for nearly three years his top environmental official, to lead the federal government's environmental protection efforts, according to published reports.

Lisa P. Jackson headed N.J.'s DEP for nearly three years.
Lisa P. Jackson headed N.J.'s DEP for nearly three years.Read more

President-elect Barack Obama is set to nominate New Jersey's Lisa P. Jackson, Gov. Corzine's chief of staff and for nearly three years his top environmental official, to lead the federal government's environmental protection efforts, according to published reports.

Jackson, who has a master's degree in chemical engineering from Princeton, would bring to the job more than 20 years of experience as an environmental officer at federal, regional and state levels. She will be the first African American to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

She was New Jersey environmental protection commissioner for nearly three years, winning praise as a consensus-builder from business groups and some environmentalists.

Others said Jackson too often bent to the will of industry groups and failed to follow through on some of her biggest environmental initiatives.

After Corzine trumpeted his plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent over the next 12 years, Jackson's department missed its summer deadline for detailing how to meet his goals. That report is expected next week.

Former N.J. Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, the EPA administrator from 2001 to '03 before she quit in frustration, called news of the appointment "great."

She said she was impressed with Jackson's "ability to work with people, her intelligence, and her balance. She is a strong environmental advocate, but she's someone who can work with people to find the common ground."

Whitman said Jackson's first priority should be to "restore morale . . . She needs to be able to look the people in the agency in the eye and say, 'We're back on track . . . and we're going to be supporting the science.' "

But Frank Maisano, an energy specialist from Washington who works with refineries, utilities and wind developers, predicted that the agency under Jackson could be "a tough sled" for industry. The EPA, he said, is "not going look on our issues as favorably, perhaps, as some past administrations."

Jackson, 46, became Corzine's chief of staff Dec. 1. She cochaired Obama's energy and natural resources transition team, which included the EPA. She declined interview requests for this article.

Corzine's chief counsel, Ed McBride, will become chief of staff, said three Democratic officials with knowledge of the administration's plans.

In a densely packed state where business is continually straining against regulations and environmentalists are trying to preserve what land is left, Jackson impressed many people with her open-minded style.

"What she's been terrific at is listening," said Sen. Robert Smith, a Middlesex County Democrat who chairs the state Senate Environment Committee.

New Jersey is home to about 20,000 contaminated sites; 114 are listed among the most polluted in the nation, more than in any other state. The largely progressive electorate makes open-space preservation and global warming popular issues in the Garden State.

"If you can handle environmental problems in New Jersey, since they've got more than any other place, you can do it anywhere," said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club and one of Jackson's supporters.

Before coming to New Jersey in 2002, Jackson worked for the EPA in Washington and then in New York, overseeing cleanups at some of the most polluted sites in New York and New Jersey.

When she took over New Jersey's DEP in 2006, it had been gutted by former governors and legislators.

"Lisa inherited an agency that was destaffed, that had a growing mandate and a shrinking resource pool, and despite those was remarkably effective," Eric Stiles of New Jersey Audubon said.

When Corzine, in a nod to business demands, extended the life of expiring building permits, Jackson was credited with forcing changes that eased what environmentalists saw as the plan's worst aspects.

And in what business groups cite as an example of her evenhandedness, Jackson worked to smooth a proposal to let private engineers supervise pollution cleanup in New Jersey, potentially freeing them from bureaucracy and speeding the process.

That has been welcomed by the business community, but loathed in environmental circles, even among those who support Jackson.

Michael Egenton, an environmental lobbyist for the N.J. Chamber of Commerce, said the proposal started with rules so tight that engineers were scared off. He said that Jackson listened to concerns and adjusted the plan, now working its way through the Legislature.

"She really believed in the stakeholder process," Egenton said.

Some of Jackson's harshest critics are grassroots activists outside Trenton who say she has helped make more headlines than substantive progress.

"Lisa Jackson is probably a nice, personable person who does not have a skeleton in her closet. But the record that she compiled when she headed the agency was a horrendous record," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a frequent Jackson critic.

Among Jackson's worst failures, Ruch said, was the agency's response to the discovery of mercury contamination at a Gloucester County day-care center, Kiddie Kollege, which had been a thermometer factory.

"The worst was her agency didn't tell the parents or the workers for months that they were in danger," Ruch said.

Jackson served as vice president of the executive board of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a 10-state cap-and-trade coalition aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But the state missed the initiative's first-of-its kind regional auction earlier this year because its regulations weren't ready in time. It was one of four states in the coalition that did not participate.

In June the EPA's inspector general issued a report chastising the federal agency and New Jersey for allowing 38 polluted sites to sit on the nation's Superfund list for 20 years with no final cleanup.

The report placed blame on the state and the regional EPA office where Jackson spent 16 years, part of it overseeing the New York regional Superfund program before joining New Jersey's environmental agency in 2002.

"It's been an abysmal track record and it's something that scares me and scares many activists in New Jersey," said Robert Spiegel, executive director of the Edison Wetlands Association in central New Jersey.

Read "Smoke and Mirrors," a four-part series about the subversion of the EPA under the Bush administration, at http://go.