Earth Day Interview: Richard Jackson, Head of the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment
By April 12, 2023 0 1014•
As Earth Day, April 22 is just around the corner, we chatted with the city’s agency head most responsible for environmental protection in the District, Richard Jackson, interim director of the DC Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE). Refreshingly, Jackson is about as far from a paper-pushing bureaucrat as one can imagine.
With deep private-sector experience, Jackson’s passionate about working with businesses and residents to comply with regulations hassle-free. He’s also driven to do the behind-the-scenes work necessary to help mitigate the impacts of climate change and pollution affecting residents of the nation’s capital.
At DOEE, Jackson is working to provide “strategic guidance and leadership to a workforce of more than 450 environmental professionals,” to “protect the environment and conserve” the District’s natural resources.
But his rise has been shaped by many years of scientific and nuts-and-bolts experience. After receiving a degree in nuclear chemical engineering from the University of Pittsburgh in his early 20s, he signed on as a nuclear chemist with the U.S. Navy. According to his official bio, he “spent 21 years” as a “nuclear submariner operating nuclear reactors, power generation, and propulsion systems, and maintaining weapons systems” and is today a “proud U.S. veteran.” He told us, “I loved every minute of being on a [submarine]…the camaraderie and the work – for some, it’s high stress… but for me, it was relaxing. I enjoyed my time underwater – so it was cool.”
After eight years of active duty, Jackson entered the Navy reserves and began working full-time in a variety of industry jobs focusing on waste disposal and compliance. “My background has always involved learning new things and applying them – that quest for knowledge,” he said. He “worked in multiple fields, such as the steel industry, and the hazardous incineration industry.” He often helped firms needing to comply with regulations on “air quality, hazardous waste, pesticides, chemicals, lead-based paint, energy weatherization and construction.” Even his side-job designing theater sets taught him lessons about construction site compliance.
In 2008, the DC Environmental Services Agency (ESA) hired Jackson as a Hazardous Waste Inspector. He rose rapidly through the ranks, leading the “largest and most complex river remediation project in the District,” to clean up the Anacostia River. He managed the District’s Site Remediation and Response Program, working with the federal government on toxic cleanups. He established the Rail Safety and Emergency Response Division (RSERD) to “ensure that District residents and railroad employees are protected from unsafe practices.” After serving as the Deputy Director of ESA, he was then selected as second-in-command at DOEE, under Director Tommy Wells who retired last year, making way for Jackson to assume leadership of DOEE.
We asked Jackson how “green” is D.C.? “I think D.C. is a very green city…. In many areas we’re on the cutting edge,” he said. “With our Building Energy Performance Standards (BEPS) program – We’re teaching other cities and states how to do what we’re doing here. It’s a great program that’s going to allow us to achieve our energy goals…. Over 200 businesses or buildings have submitted their reports to us showing us where their energy uses are and what would be the next steps to start reducing that energy consumption. It was a big deal getting that many companies involved – we’re working on the rest of them…. And we know that’s going to have a major impact in terms of our greenhouse gas production in the future…. We’re looking at [approximately] a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gasses by 2030 compared to 2006. And our largest producers of greenhouse gasses are our buildings.”
The city’s “sustainability plan” with its “green infrastructure (GI)” programs – think green roofs, rain gardens, etc. — is emulated by many other cities. “We go to a lot of other cities and show them what we’re doing,” Jackson said.
But a major innovation in the District’s environmental programs is to grow the green economy and create new jobs – something long touted by environmentalists. “You can’t just put in green infrastructure — you’ve got to develop a plan for maintaining [it]. So, that led us on the path of creating a whole new ‘workforce development project’ to allow people to learn how to do that and to maintain those systems in their neighborhoods,” Jackson said. He recalled recently working with his team to help a young man who’d done roof maintenance establish a startup green infrastructure business.
The hidden effects of climate change in the region are a concern, however. A leader in the city’s Flood Task Force, the DOEE has prioritized addressing major storm events and rising water table levels in the city. DOEE has set up the FloodSmart Homes project to help homeowners prevent basement flooding and a database identifying the District’s 100-year flood plains. “We’re doing redevelopments around the shorelines,” Jackson said. “Like at Kingman Island, we want everyone to think about what the floods are going to look like. What’s it going to be in a few years? Look down the road. Don’t just design for the day. Design for the future.”
And, of course, climate change has differential impacts in the city raising issues about environmental justice. In marginalized areas, less tree canopy and indoor air conditioning leads to more heat strokes and heart attack deaths during extreme heat events. “In terms of ‘heat islands,’ I know our energy team is working on that as well… We had a meeting on the tree canopy a few weeks ago…. And it’s one of our performance measures for the city — how many trees there are and how many are planted and maintained for the city. We do that every year.” To help residents in ‘heat islands’ without air conditioning, DOEE also helps residents who qualify through HUD to receive home air conditioners.
For Jackson, however, Job 1 is to ensure that residents receive regulatory “compliance assistance” from DOEE. He wants his teams to help the city move together to achieve the city’s sustainability goals without having to resort to fining businesses. “We’re here to help,” Jackson emphasized. “We have to make sure everyone is safe and we have an environment that’s safe to live in… [but,] we’re here to serve.”
Interested in things to do this Earth Day 2023? Click here for a list of activities in the area.