IN PERSON; Hitting Ground Zero Running
by Jill P. Capuzzo, The New York Times on 01-27-2002
THE first task Jane M. Kenny was handed was to oversee the clean-up effort at the World Trade Center.
On her second day, Ms. Kenny stood by while her boss, Christie Whitman, disclosed her decision as head of the Environmental Protection Agency to pursue a $500 million dredging of the Hudson River two decades after General Electric plants dumped PCB's into the river.
You might say Ms. Kenny -- the new regional administrator for the federal Environmental Agency -- has her hands full. While she has not yet visited all the region's outposts, Ms. Kenny has logged a good deal of time in New York and in her home state of New Jersey. As recently as last week she visited a Superfund site in Manville, where a creosote removal project was underway, before stopping by the agency's 205-acre campus in Edison.
On the grounds are the region's science labs as well as both the state and federal emergency response divisions. Within an hour of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the environmental agency's emergency response team was at the site.
Since taking the job, the 50-year-old administrator has visited the trade center site several times, and each time, she says, she is humbled by what she sees. ''My first tour of the World Trade Center was in a golf cart, going around the perimeter to see where the monitoring and wash sites were,'' she said. ''The people were working nonstop, completely immersed in what they were doing. It was an extraordinary introduction to the people at E.P.A.''
Her job includes running the decontamination wash stations and monitoring air and water from samples taken in New York and North Jersey as the debris from the Sept. 11 attacks is cleared away.
Kathy Callahan, a 30-year veteran of the agency and the acting head of the region before Ms. Kenny arrived, described her successor's early tenure as ''a baptism by fire,'' but said she has been adept at ''cutting right to the heart of issues.''
A self-described policy hound, Ms. Kenny found her way into government while working toward a Ph.D. in English literature at Rutgers. The Kean administration was looking for a writer at the time so she took the job, and it wasn't long before the government bug bit her. She later assumed the post of cabinet secretary under Gov. Thomas H. Kean, and following a stint in private business during the administration of Gov. Jim Florio, was brought back on board with the Whitman transition team. Mrs. Whitman first appointed her as chief of policy and planning, and in 1996 gave her the cabinet post at Community Affairs.
Her close affiliation with Ms. Whitman is what has at least one environmentalist concerned. Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, called Ms. Kenny a ''loyalist'' to the former governor. ''She's a strong leader and very competent, but she's more of a political person than a policy person, who's there to carry out the wishes of Governor Whitman,'' he said.
Ms. Kenny talks a lot about balancing the needs of the economy with a concern for the environment. In her years in Community Affairs she also learned the value of inclusion when making decisions. She cites the state's sustainable housing plan as an example of bringing together such disparate groups as developers, affordable housing advocates and utility companies to come up with a program to build affordable, energy-efficient housing. The program was cited as a national model.
''Those same kinds of integrated partnerships have to happen at E.P.A.'' Ms. Kenny said. ''So much in the environment -- the easy penalties, the easy victories -- are over. Now it's much more subtle. You have to figure out how to bring the 'enemies' to the table to work out an agreement.''
Born in Jersey City to a career military officer man and a school administrator, Ms. Kenny has a particular affinity for urban issues. She pushed for the state takeover of Camden and was chairwoman of the state's Brownfields Task Force, expertise that should serve her well now that President Bush has signed a $1.2 billion industrial clean-up bill.
Anthony Cancro, who took over as acting commissioner of Community Affairs after Ms. Kenny left, said her efforts on behalf of distressed communities, especially Camden, were among her greatest legacies.
''She always tried to look at things from a global perspective,'' Mr. Cancro said. ''It wasn't just about a building, but what was going on in the neighborhood, the community, the town, the region.''
Her biggest fan may be Mrs. Whitman, who said that though Ms. Kenny was hesitant about accepting the last two jobs she offered her, she ''ends up loving them.''
''She can be tough as nails when she needs to be, but she does it from a basis of knowledge and respect for the people she's dealing with,'' Mrs. Whitman said.
Ms. Kenny's style of leadership has not only been recognized by her boss. Her office in Edison is filled with plaques she hasn't had time to hang. In 2000 and 2001, she was named one of Governing Magazine's nine Public Officials of the Year, received Good Housekeeping's Women in Government Award and was among five public officials to receive the National Public Service Award.
Not that she particularly stands out in her own family of high achievers. One sister is a superior court judge, and the other an assistant school superintendent while her brother is a partner in a law firm.
Mr. Cancro, who worked with Ms. Kenny at Community Affairs, said her new job was a good fit because ''when you talk to Jane Kenny, you see she's a real preservationist, an environmentalist at heart.''
Ms. Kenny enjoys hiking, canoeing and biking with her husband and three children, and a few years back participated in the state's bear-tagging program. Her husband, Greg Myer, a software developer, has created an elaborate system of energy-saving light sources in their home in Highland Park, and she drives a Mercury Sable but mostly takes public transportation to work. She's on a waiting list for an energy hybrid car and has ordered similar cars for her department.''
''We're all responsible,'' she said. ''What kind of light bulbs do you use, what kind of car do you drive?'' she said.
She is quick to point out, however, that these are personal choices and balks at the notion of being too liberal in an administration not always recognized for taking the most progressive environmental stands.
''I'm not so sure it's a question of liberal or not,'' she said. ''For me it's just intuitive personal behavior.''
Among her priorities, Ms. Kenny hopes to visit the many Superfund sites in her region. New Jersey leads the nation with 111 such contaminated sites, while New York has 87 and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands 10.
The environmental issue she cites as New Jersey's most challenging -- the dredging of the state's harbors to meet the increasing demands of the shipping industry -- is an example of trying to balance the needs of industry with protecting the environment. And while recognizing the increased powers her new job gives her, Ms. Kenny is not ready to rattle her saber just yet.
''You have to have the authority, to have that big stick, but rather than waving that stick, maybe you should stand behind the door and throw out some carrots,'' she said. ''Then, when everyone comes to eat the carrots, you say 'Hey, let's talk.' ''