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Administrator Lisa Jackson, Remarks to the National Tribal Operations Committee, As Prepared

07/22/2009
As prepared for delivery.

It’s an honor to speak with you this morning.

First, thank you for the work you’ve done. Over the years, this committee has been an important part of EPA’s efforts to address the many needs in tribal communities. I know that hasn’t always been an easy lift – and I appreciate all that you’ve done to keep these issues at the front. I’m also here to extend a hand in partnership for the work that we have yet to do.

Let me begin by taking a moment to officially reaffirm the EPA’s 1984 Indian Policy. In 1984, EPA became the first federal agency to adopt a formal Indian Policy. Since then, the Policy has been reaffirmed by every Administrator.

By this action, EPA is continuing to recognize that the United States has a unique legal relationship with tribal governments based on the Constitution, treaties, statutes, Executive Orders, and court decisions. This relationship includes recognition of the right of Tribes – as sovereign governments – to act with self-determination, as well as an acknowledgment of the federal government’s trust responsibility to Tribes.

I’m proud to be with you today to formally reaffirm this policy. We’re sending a clear signal that EPA is leading the way in addressing the critical environmental issues affecting our tribal communities.

We certainly have our work cut out for us.

Right now, hazardous waste sites and open dumps are rampant in tribal lands, exposing their residents to dangerous toxins and contamination of their land and water. Many tribal lands, economies and cultures are being threatened by climate change, from the loss of fish habitats in our rivers and streams, to eroding shorelines that are threatening native Alaskan villages.

I actually just read about an example of this happening back where I come from in Louisiana. In the Washington Post on Monday, there was a story about how nearly 40 miles of wetlands along the coast disappear every year. Salt water is flowing into the marshes and changing the ecosystem. The loss of reeds and grasses and other vegetation is speeding up the erosion. And the people hit hardest by that environmental degradation are the local tribes for whom the wetlands are a way of life.

Families are finding it harder and harder to fish, trap, or catch the shrimp and shellfish that make up a major part of their economy. The loss of vegetation also removes the natural buffers along the coasts, leaving their homes far more vulnerable to flooding and other damage from hurricanes. That was actually one of the reasons why Hurricane Katrina was so destructive – because the marsh grasses weren’t there to provide that natural buffer.

As a result of all these problems, the young people of the tribes are moving away. The few jobs available are with offshore oil and gas drilling. And the entire tribal community is talking about relocating from the place that they’ve called home for centuries.

One of the most persistent challenges we have to help tribal communities confront is water quality. Almost 10 percent of tribal homes lack safe drinking water and wastewater handling. That’s ten times the rate of non-tribal homes in the US.

We’ve already taken a few steps forward thanks to the Recovery Act passed earlier this year.

EPA and the Indian Health Service recently announced $90 million in Recovery Act funds for drinking water and wastewater services in the American Indian and Alaska Native communities.
We’ve identified 95 wastewater and 64 drinking water priority projects to be completed with recovery act funds. That will serve over 30,000 Native American homes.

Addressing long-standing water issues in tribal communities is also going to bring in new jobs and new opportunities, helping them get through the economic downturn and build a lasting foundation for prosperity.

That funding is in addition to the $68 million that IHS received in Recovery funds for sanitation facilities in Indian homes and communities, and in addition to the annual federal budget allocation for adequate drinking water and wastewater treatment to Indian and Alaskan Native families.

Through the Recovery Act, EPA is investing more than $7 billion in programs and projects to ensure water quality, clean up contaminated sites, support clean diesel technology, and maintain leaking underground storage tanks.

We face a huge challenge in ensuring that we get these dollars out to tribes, states and communities as quickly as possible. But we welcome the opportunity to provide solutions in these challenging economic times. We’re eager to demonstrate that environmental protection and economic growth can go hand in hand.

These, of course, are not the only issues we’re facing.

One concern over the years has been the question of the proper location of the American Indian Environmental Office in the Agency. The AIEO has been located in the Office of Water since 1994. Earlier this year I spoke to the National Congress of American Indians and announced my intention to review AIEO’s placement at the request of tribes. After consulting with the National Tribal Caucus and EPA leadership I’m happy to announce our decision that the ideal placement for AIEO will be within the Office of International Affairs, under their new Assistant Administrator, Michelle DePass.

This is, of course, the office in EPA that handles our relationships with other sovereign nations. It’s appropriate that we approach our relationship with the sovereign nations within our own country in comparable fashion. I am confident that this move with result in new and positive directions for ongoing the EPA-Tribal partnership.

Another challenge is in ensuring the adequate implementation of programs in Indian country. Many tribes have made tremendous strides over the years, but as I said, only a few are able to implement vital federal programs.

In the face of the concerns over clean water, coastal erosion, and contaminated sites that I spoke of, less than 5% of tribes actually have the resources they need to implement federal environmental programs. That’s not a number that EPA or our tribal partners are willing to settle for. We need NTOC to play a leading role in expanding local program capacity and helping tribes take affirmative steps within their own communities.

As you know, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the EPA Indian Policy. American Indians have been extraordinary contributors to the environmental movement since it first began to gather momentum decades ago. In the last 25 years, we’ve done good work through the American Indian Environmental Office.

We’ve dramatically increased the funding and staffing of EPA's tribal program, and worked with tribes and Congress to amend core statutes and allow tribal assumption of program authority. We formed the NTOC to strengthen our Indian Policy, and built in specific tribal metrics in our Strategic Plan and annual performance efforts to make sure they are meeting your needs. And we continue to train EPA staff on how to work effectively with Tribal Governments. But we still have a long way to go towards ensuring that our tribal communities are full partners.

In this moment of exceptional challenge, there is much to be done – both in our tribal communities and across the country. We need new advocates striving to protect the health of their communities and save our planet. We want American Indians to play a role in the debates our nation is having on environmental protection, and to have a say in the decisions we make.

We also need to be thinking ahead. I’m not only challenging you to deal with today’s issues, I also want you to help us identify the issues on the horizon. We should all be asking what environmental protection will look like over the next ten years. What are the most pressing issues going to be? And how will they affect the health of all communities including tribal areas? How can we be proactive today, rather than just reactive once a problem has already materialized and damage is already taking place?

We want to ensure that American Indians are securing the green jobs of the clean energy future. We want to ensure that they‘re being heard when they call for cleaner land, air, and water, and environmental protections to safeguard the health of their children. And we want a long-standing, productive partnership to address these challenges. I will be looking to the NTOC as leaders – to build a long and effective relationship with our tribal partners and helping move us all towards our shared goals.

I look forward to working with you. Thank you.