EPA administrator stands tall

For those who long for clean water, breathable air and perhaps even a healthy Chesapeake Bay, there's at least one public figure willing to fight for your cause, and she's a former chemical engineer who has never held elected office.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson has emerged as one of the most effective figures in the Obama administration to date. She's a tough, no-nonsense, plain-spoken regulator who doesn't seem especially fazed by constant attacks from House Republicans who insist that EPA rules are costing the nation precious jobs.

Of course, the EPA is not the economic boogeyman that conservatives claim. While polluters must sometimes dip into profits to meet minimum environmental standards, studies have shown the net effect on the economy is hardly disastrous. A recent Office of Management and Budget report found the benefits of EPA regulations over the past 10 years outweigh the costs anywhere from 3-to-1 to as much as 20-to-1.

How is that possible? Because for every polluter who must toe the line — install scrubbers to take sulfur dioxide out of factory emissions, for instance — there are new jobs created in building and installing those scrubbers, opportunities in next-generation factories to replace aging technology, as well as health benefits to people living downwind from the facility.

The EPA is no jobs killer; it's often a job creator. But the agency's chief role is to look out for the health and welfare of the public by creating rules and procedures polluters must follow so that their profits are not based on choking or poisoning the American people.

One of the best examples came on Thursday, with the new EPA rules governing power plant emissions that contribute to soot, smog and acid rain. The agency estimates that for an additional $1 billion investment to upgrade these plants, the public will be spared 34,000 premature deaths, 15,000 nonfatal heart attacks and countless cases of asthma and other respiratory ailments.

That's particularly helpful to residents of Maryland, where the state has already taken great strides to clean up local power plants but is powerless to do anything about coal-fired plants in the Midwest that send air pollution streaming eastward.

Of course, that won't stop the polluters and their allies in Congress from complaining about how the regulations will drive up costs while completely ignoring the billions of dollars in lost productivity and health care costs such air pollution causes downwind. Why should Maryland residents pay with their lives so others can run their air conditioners more cheaply?

But that's not the only battle Ms. Jackson and the EPA are taking on this summer and fall. New rules governing mercury emissions, mining wastes, vehicle emissions and, most controversial of all, climate change, are also coming out — much to the chagrin not only of Republicans but some Democrats facing re-election in 2012.

That Ms. Jackson so far seems resolute in her agency's efforts is a tribute to her professionalism and integrity. No doubt there are even some in the White House who would prefer that the EPA soften or delay its approach.

Closest to home, she's also been a driving force in the Obama administration's efforts to create a "pollution diet" for the Chesapeake Bay by holding states in the watershed accountable. That's drawn howls of protest from farmers, builders and others who may face increased regulations — and costs — as a result. But it's the best hope in a generation for a cleaner Chesapeake Bay, and Marylanders should be thrilled by Ms. Jackson's advocacy.

That's not to suggest that everything ever written by an EPA bureaucrat is above criticism or should be the last word in public policy. But the reality is that the agency is not caving to industry as it did so often during the George W. Bush years. It is putting the public's best interests ahead of polluters, even the deep-pocketed, politically influential kind. That's reason to cheer.