Lillian Kawasaki speaks to the media in 1990 after being introduced as the… (Los Angeles Times )
Lillian Kawasaki, a veteran Los Angeles city administrator who spearheaded major initiatives to protect air and water quality as the first head of the Environmental Affairs Department, died of cancer Thursday at her home in Long Beach. She was 62.
Her death was confirmed by her husband, Craig Carter.
An environmental scientist, Kawasaki was named general manager of the Department of Environmental Affairs in 1990 by Mayor Tom Bradley. In making the announcement Bradley said she was the first Asian American to be appointed as a department chief, although others had served as acting heads.
During the decade she served in the post, she oversaw a $3.5-million budget and launched a number of programs, including a clean air plan, an environmental justice program and an initiative to clean up contaminated property.
"She knew more about environmental cleanup and protection opportunities than anybody else in the city. So she went out and figured out how to make them real," environmentalist and former Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter said Friday.
"The amazing thing about what she did," Galanter noted, "was she ran it almost entirely on outside money," mainly federal grants.
The department was dismantled in 2010 as part of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's budget reduction plan.
Kawasaki was born in Denver on Sept. 17, 1950, the oldest of three children of Toshio and Sekiko Kawasaki. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, her mother was incarcerated along with thousands of other Japanese Americans at the Manzanar internment camp near Lone Pine, while her father was sent to the Amache camp in Colorado. He was released near the end of the war to join the Army.
She said her father inspired her public service career.
"When I asked him why he joined the Army, he said, 'This is about service to your country and because it's the right thing to do,' " she told the Long Beach Press Telegram in 2012.
In addition to her husband and father, Kawasaki is survived by a brother, Glenn, of Seattle, and a sister, Nancy, of Elgin, Ill.
Kawasaki attended Cal State Los Angeles, where she earned a bachelor's degree in zoology in 1974 and a master's in biology in 1980.
In 1978 she joined the Port of Los Angeles as a marine environmentalist. She spent 12 years there, eventually heading its environmental management division before leaving in 1990 to launch the Department of Environmental Affairs.
In 2000 she was named head of the city Community Development Department, where she managed 500 employees and more than $300 million in federal block grants and other public funds for neighborhood and business development.
She became assistant general manager of environmental affairs and economic development for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in 2003. Her responsibilities included overseeing the Green L.A. program, which encouraged businesses to invest in renewable energy.
After retiring in 2008 she remained active in water issues, including serving on the board of the Water Replenishment District of Southern California, which manages groundwater for nearly 4 million residents in 43 cities.
She was also a cofounder of Friends of Manzanar, a volunteer organization that supports the Manzanar National Historic Site.
Last year, after decades of working for elected officials, she waged a vigorous but unsuccessful campaign to become one herself. With her cancer — which had been diagnosed in 2010 — in remission, she threw herself into the race for a seat on the Long Beach City Council.
"You could not persuade her to take it easy," Galanter said. "She was convinced it was an important thing to do."