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FairfaxLocal leaders laud legacy of environmental advocate

Local leaders laud legacy of environmental advocate

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McLean resident Debra Ann Jacobson, a lawyer, investigator for Congress and ardent environmentalist, died Sept. 15 at her McLean home.

She was 69 and died from complications of liver cancer, her family said.

“Debra was a champion for the environment and someone who inspired those who were fortunate enough to know her,” said Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville). “Her unwavering commitment to advancing environmental policies and pursuing sustainability goals was evident throughout her life and is reflected in her many achievements.”

Born Debra Denkensohn in Kingston, N.Y., on March 20, 1952, Jacobson graduated from the University of Rochester in 1974 and from George Washington University Law School in 1977.


Jacobson started her career as an intern for U.S. Rep. Bob Eckhardt (D-Texas), became his legislative assistant and later was one of his investigative counsels on the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

Jacobson worked in that position for an additional 14 years after U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) became the subcommittee’s chairman in 1981. A 1991 U.S. News & World Report article on Dingell mentioned the congressman’s investigative “junkyard dogs” and called Jacobson “a lawyer who knows more about the EPA than most of its bosses.”

Jacobson worked on the legal team that overcame President Reagan’s claim of executive privilege over Superfund documents in 1983. EPA Administrator Anne Burford and more than 20 high-ranking EPA officials resigned as a result of the investigation.

After a nearly two-decade career on Capitol Hill, Jacobson worked on clean energy and other issues at the U.S. Department of Energy. Following retiring from public service in 2000, she co-taught an energy-law course for 12 years at George Washington University and in private consulting.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors honored Jacobson’s legacy at the board’s Oct. 5 meeting. Chairman Jeff McKay (D) called her an “amazing individual.”

Jacobson was involved in environmental issues from a young age and held a teach-in at her high school during the country’s first Earth Day celebration in 1970, Foust said.

In 1981, Jacobson helped co-found of the Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment. She also served in leadership roles in the local and state Sierra Club groups. From 2017 to 2020, she was a member of the Fairfax County Environmental Quality Advisory Council and helped convince supervisors to install solar arrays on more than 100 county buildings and schools.

Jacobson also supported efforts to register voters, allow early voting and ensure voter protection in federal and Virginia elections.

She received many honors over the years, including a Sustainability Champion Award from the Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions in 2020 and a Special Achievement Award this past summer from the national chapter of the Sierra Club, he said.

Foust and Supervisor Daniel Storck (D-Mount Vernon) also recently nominated her for a county Environmental Excellence Award. The community has “lost of dedicated public servant and a really wonderful person,” Foust said.
Jacobson married her husband, David, in 1975 and the pair resided in Northern Virginia since 1977.

In addition to her husband, Jacobson is survived by a son, Andrew Jacobson, of Montclair, N.J., his wife and their son. She also is survived by a sister, Sheri Denkensohn, and a brother, Michael Denkensohn.

“She found her passion and spent the next 50 years fighting for our planet at the federal, state and local levels,” said Andrew Jacobson. “She showed me what it meant to live a mission-based life.”

Jacobson’s family held a funeral service and burial Sept. 20 at National Memorial Park in Falls Church.

Family members suggest that donations in Jacobson’s memory be made to the Energy Law and Policy Fund at George Washington University Law School, the Rondout Valley Scholarship Fund’s Esther and Charles Denkensohn Scholarship Fund or the Rondout Valley Education Foundation.

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