President-elect Barack Obama's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency promised Wednesday to immediately assess hundreds of coal ash disposal sites at power plants across the country in the wake of two spills in Alabama and Tennessee.
Testifying at her Senate confirmation hearing, Lisa Jackson said the agency also will reconsider ways to regulate the ash and how it is stored, something the EPA recommended in 2000 but did not act upon during the Bush administration.
"The EPA currently has, and has in the past, assessed its regulatory options, and I think it is time to re-ask those questions," Jackson said.
Coal ash ponds storing waste created by burning coal are not subject to federal regulations. Oversight of the ponds and landfills varies by state.
Jackson said the agency's decisions will be based on science and the law and not politics. Her statement was the clearest signal yet that the Obama administration plans to take EPA in a different direction from his Republican predecessor.
"Science must be the backbone of what EPA does," said Jackson. "EPA's addressing of scientific decisions should reflect the expert judgment of the agency's career scientists and independent advisers."
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works is also considering the nomination of Nancy Sutley, Obama's choice to chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Sutley also vowed to rely on science as she helped to "move the nation to greater reliance on clean energy and increase energy security."
Senators, as expected, pressed both candidates for details on how the incoming administration plans to tackle global warming and water pollution.
Jackson left the door open to using current laws to regulate the gases blamed for global warming, despite Republican criticism that statutes aimed at reducing air pollution and protecting endangered species should not be used to address climate change.
Environmental laws, she said, "were meant to address not only the issues of today, but the issues of tomorrow."
Obama has called for legislation to curb gas emissions blamed for global warming. It is unclear whether he will pursue a new law first or use existing statutes to address the problem more quickly.
Echoing a promise made by Obama, Jackson said she would revisit the decision by Bush's EPA and consider allowing California and other states to regulate greenhouse gases from tailpipes.
If confirmed, Jackson, 46, would be the first black person to lead the EPA — an agency with 17,000 employees and a $7 billion budget.
Before running the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Jackson worked at the EPA for 16 years. She served under Carol Browner, President Bill Clinton's EPA chief and Obama's pick for a new White House position coordinating energy and climate policy.
Sutley, 46, is the deputy mayor for energy and environment in Los Angeles. She is the daughter of Argentinean immigrants and is a gay rights activist. She also worked at the EPA during the Clinton administration.
If Sutley is confirmed, she would coordinate energy and environmental policy from the White House.