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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the Harvard University Commemoration of EPA at 40, As Prepared

12/03/2010
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As prepared for delivery.

Thank you very much. It is an honor to be at Harvard today. I will be speaking a little later about the need for opposing parties and long-time rivals to overcome their differences in the face of tough challenges. In that spirit, I want to say on behalf of myself – and any other Princeton grads here – congratulations to Harvard on your recent victory over Yale.

It is an amazing honor to be at this prestigious American institution. This university has a 400-year history of great minds and extraordinary ideas. For you to spend a day honoring an agency that just turned 40 yesterday – and to do so by gathering these great minds to discuss extraordinary ideas – is an extraordinary tribute. It is a wonderful way to culminate our 40th anniversary week.

I am thrilled to be here with so many wonderful people. I want to thank former-Administrator Ruckelshaus for joining us and for his insight on the panel. Bill is the standard every Administrator strives to meet. When the doors opened at EPA 40 years ago, this endeavor rested on his shoulders. He set it all in motion – and returned to the agency when it needed leadership to get back on track. Without him, the changes of the last 40 years would not have happened. He is a mentor and an inspiration. I’m also proud to call him my friend.

I’m happy also to be here with so many of my colleagues from EPA and the Administration – as well as many former EPAers. And last but certainly not least, I want to express my deep gratitude to the Harvard University Center for the Environment and Dan Schrag. Dan and his team did an incredible job bringing all this together, and I am deeply appreciative. I also, of course, thank Dan for his leadership of the Center, which day-in and day-out is advancing our environmental science and knowledge, and setting the stage for the success of this movement – and of course EPA –for another 40 years.

Today I want to talk about how this 40th anniversary has prepared us for the work ahead. By that I mean the unfinished business and new challenges that will define this agency’s work in the future. But I’m also referring to the immediate political realities we face, and how the last 40 years can help us address those as well. To begin, I want to go back to Monday when I was invited to the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC. Many of you know Aspen and have been part of their work.

My good friend and colleague Walter Issacson brought together a spectrum of environmental leaders to compile a list of highlights that they called “10 ways EPA has strengthened America.” This was not a top ten by any metric of lives saved or monetized health benefits – but a list of the changes that have had the broadest impact on our lives in the last four decades. And those changes were:

Removing Lead from Gasoline—and from the Air
Removing the Acid from Rain
Clearing Secondhand Smoke
Vehicle Efficiency and Emissions Control
Controlling Toxic Substances
Banning Widespread Use of DDT
Rethinking Waste as Materials
A Clean Environment for All/Environmental Justice
Cleaner Water; and
The “Community Right to Know” Act

I mention this for several reasons. First, because we’re proud of it. It’s a great measure of work EPA has done. This list represents millions of lives saved and trillions of dollars in health benefits. These changes touched the lives of every American born since 1970. If you drink water; if you eat; if you breathe – you benefitted from the items on this list.

Second, it captures the breadth and depth of EPA’s work. These days people tend to think EPA is all about climate change. But climate is just the tip of the iceberg. The 40th anniversary has been a good way to remind people of the broad range of protections EPA is responsible for. This is something I want to also commend Dan and Harvard on, for looking at the full scope of EPA’s history.

Third, these are things the American people would refuse to do without. When you turn on the shower or make a cup of coffee, you want the water you use protected from industrial pollution and untreated sewage. You want to be able to drive without breathing dangerous lead pollution. When we sit down to eat lunch in a minute, would you prefer your food with more, or less, protection from pesticides?

Those expectations are important because of another more recent milestone. In addition to EPA’s 40th, December 2nd also marked exactly one month since the 2010 midterm elections. As you know, those elections strengthened the influence of groups and individuals threatening to roll back EPA’s efforts. As the storyline goes, this happened at least in part because of EPA’s aggressive agenda of the last two years. I agree – at least in part. We have had an aggressive environmental agenda. Working with my colleagues at EPA, I set seven priorities that cover the most crucial elements for EPA’s future. We have seen progress on each one.

We are Taking Action on Climate Change, through the Endangerment Finding, the first requirements for greenhouse gas monitoring, the clean cars program and other commonsense steps under the Clean Air Act. We are Improving Air Quality, with the toughest smog standards in our history, the first national limits to reduce mercury from cement plants and the first new standards for NO2 in 35 years. To Ensure the Safety of Chemicals, we’ve been vocal about the need for updates to the Toxic Substances Control Act. But we’re not waiting. We’ve developed specific action plans for managing several widely used chemicals, and are working on several more. Cleaning Up Communities has happened primarily through swift implementation of the Recovery Act, which funded numerous Brownfields and Superfund cleanups – including one in New Bedford Harbor. Along with those came investments in water infrastructure, clean diesel technology, and repairs to leaking underground storage tanks. We are Protecting America’s Waters with historic efforts in the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve outlined new approaches to protecting water and we’re incorporating creative ideas like green infrastructure to deal with challenges like stormwater runoff. We’re Building Strong State and Tribal Partnerships by collaborating with our partners at the state level. We moved our Tribal programs into the Office of International and Tribal Affairs. And on Expanding the Conversation on Environmentalism and Working for Environmental Justice we are engaging new voices and calling on other environmental leaders to do the same. We’ve revitalized our EJ office, issued EPA-wide guidance on incorporating EJ into their decision making, and – with my good friend Nancy Sutley – reconvened the leadership of the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice for the first time in over a decade.

These are just a few examples, and we are proud of each of them. Let me also recognize the leadership of President Obama for making all that possible. Facing economic challenges unprecedented in our generation, the easiest political thing to do would have been to visibly and vocally call off the EPA. To tell us to just wait one year or two. But the President stood by us – and not just us. He led the way on the most significant clean energy investments in our history, and the research and development that will open the way to more advances in environmental protection. President Obama insisted that the choice between our economy and our environment is a false choice. We have been more than happy to prove him right.

Now – despite this aggressive agenda, a look at the elections shows they were not a vote for less environmental protection. No candidate ran on promises of more pollution in our air and water; and no one was sent to congress with a mandate to increase health threats to our children.

In California, one congressman has threatened to cut our funds for enforcing greenhouse gas regulations while another has made clear that EPA will be under the radar of his committee in the next congress. Both were re-elected on the same day California voters overwhelmingly rejected a plan to suspend their aggressive state climate programs until the economy improved.

Anyone saying “Well sure – that’s California” should consider Georgia. Republicans won in the Senate, the Governor’s race and in eight of 13 house races. Voters also approved Amendment 4, authorizing multiyear state contracts for energy efficiency and conservation projects.

In Iowa, again Republicans won in the Senate and the Gubernatorial contests. So did Measure 1: a dedicated trust fund to improve water quality, protect wildlife habitat, reduce soil erosion, and create parks and trails.

The message last month was not that people want less environmental protection. If anything, it was that they want more results and action from both sides of the aisle. The good news on that front is that our history is filled with the results of bi-partisan actions. To give credit where it’s due: the EPA was a Republican idea. EPA’s creation and the suite of environmental laws that passed in the early 70s were the result of a Democratic congress working with President Nixon. The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments were – again – passed by a Democratic-majority Congress and signed by Republican President George H. W. Bush. Boyden Gray, who was on the first panel, helped make that happen. I have frequent conversations with former-Administrators Ruckelshaus and Reilly on a regular basis, as well as my NJ colleague Christine Todd Whitman. I’ll stop there before I get into who first had the idea for cap and trade.

Some believe the midterms sent a message on the role of government. Even still, we don’t believe the American people want a rollback of protections they have come to expect. USA Today and Gallup released a poll on “How Americans View the Federal Government.” There were plenty of issues where responders believed that government should stay out. Yet, only five percent felt that government should play no role in environmental protection. Forty-two percent believed that government should have “total responsibility,” while the remaining majority fell somewhere in between. In other words, 95 percent of Americans want government to play a role in environmental protection. Americans don’t want factories to dump uncontrolled amounts of waste into our rivers, or millions of vehicles on our roads without standards for emissions. This movement started when it became clear that market forces were not going to be enough to stop Los Angeles from becoming the smog capital of the world or to prevent situations like the Cuyahoga River Fire. People demanded new mechanisms for stopping pollution, and those came in the form of EPA and new environmental laws. And on the specific point of federal government, it’s worth noting that 90 percent of permits and other implementation of environmental rules take place at the state and local level.

We also know voters were also concerned about the deficit. Some may believe that shrinking EPA is the right thing to do on that point. But EPA’s budget is a tiny fraction our counterparts in the federal government. We get incredible benefits for what we invest in environmental protection in this country. Moreover, the majority of our budget is sent directly to states for clean water and drinking water funds and Superfund cleanups – funding I’m sure local and state constituents are not eager to do without. Whatever minuscule dents we could put in the federal deficit would only increase gaps at the state level, not to mention public health costs.

What it really comes down to is an economic argument, especially as we recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Fortunately, the last 40 years show no evidence that environmental protection hinders economic growth. Neither the recent crisis nor any other period of economic turmoil was caused by environmental protection. Yet, special interests have spent hundreds of millions of dollars attacking everything unleaded gasoline to cleaning up acid rain as the death knell of the American economy. In 40 years not one of their doomsday scenarios has come true. Rather than the death of American industry, GDP has grown by 207 percent since 1970, and America remains the proud home of storied companies that continue to create opportunities. Instead of cutting productivity, we’ve cut pollution while increasing the number of cars, buildings and power plants in America. EPA’s onslaught of alleged “job killing regulations” have, instead, sparked a homegrown environmental protection sector that employs more than 1.5 million Americans. As I said, even in these challenging times, EPA has been part of the solution, using Recovery Act investments to create jobs and prepare communities for more growth in the years ahead.

One reason for that success is that EPA’s efforts thrive on American ingenuity and entrepreneurship. That successful approach was established, not surprisingly, by William Ruckelshaus 40 years ago. When EPA began, he wrote “The technology which has bulldozed its way across the environment must now be employed to remove impurities from the air, to restore vitality to our rivers and streams, to recycle the waste that is the ugly by-product of our prosperity.” Holding polluters accountable sparks innovations like the catalytic converter pioneered by the multi-billion dollar Engelhard Corporation, or DuPont’s CFC replacements, which saved the ozone layer and profited the company. Just yesterday, General Motors announced that they plan to hire 1,000 people to develop low-emission electric vehicles. On Tuesday Chrysler committed to hiring 1,000 new engineers and technicians to work on small and midsize cars. Today 2,000 of our fellow Americans have new opportunities, at least in part because of the need to meet environmental standards we set earlier this year in the clean cars program.

We should also be sending the message about what environmental protection means for local economies. When the air is dirty, or the water is contaminated, and people are getting sick, those kinds of health costs are multiplied by millions of families. And they’re a burden to small businesses trying to provide health care to their workers. This touches another politicized issue: environmental justice. Environmental Justice is at its root a recognition that there is unfinished business from the last 40 years – and much of what remains is concentrated in low income and minority neighborhoods. Because of that we need to expand our conversation to those communities.

My mother was living in Pontchartrain Park when Hurricane Katrina came. I happened to be visiting for her birthday, and ended up driving her to safety. Like so many others, she lost everything she had. After Katrina and Rita came, we saw that the devastation and flooding were so bad because marshes and wetlands – the area’s natural defenses – had been destabilized and cut away for oil and gas lines. My mother can now make as compelling an argument as any expert about the need to protect and preserve wetlands. And watching that transformation has been an awakening for me – about how environmentalism grows. I saw a need to broaden the conversation. One aspiration of my time at EPA is to reach communities and groups of people who don’t think of themselves as environmentalists, and show them how EPA and green jobs can benefit them. That’s not an easy sell. I don’t think my mother stopped asking me why I didn’t become a doctor until President Obama called.

If you polled these communities on the most important issues in their lives, it’s doubtful that climate change would come up. They would likely say the same thing that many opponents of EJ would say: jobs and the economy are the most important thing. The priority we set of Expanding the Conversation on Environmentalism and Working for Environmental Justice is a health and environmental issue. But it is also driven by a deep concern for economic opportunity. The idea that environmental degradation is an obstacle to prosperity is a pillar of the EJ movement. In the places where jobs are needed the most, environmental degradation is an entry barrier for new investments and businesses. It’s what we see in inner cities where air pollution makes kids miss school and workers stay home. It’s what we see on tribal lands where open landfills are rampant and drinking water is polluted. Last year I met a tribal leader who told me that his community was facing 50 percent unemployment. Poison in the ground means poison in the economy. A weak environment means a weak consumer base. And unhealthy air means an unhealthy atmosphere for investments. But a clean, green healthy community is a better place to buy a home and raise a family, it’s more competitive in the race to attract new businesses, and it has the foundations it needs for prosperity.

This is not a challenge to individuals and groups who talk about opposing EPA. What I want to communicate is that EPA functions effectively within so many of the lines that our so-called opponents accuse us of crossing. We believe in state and local efforts. We believe in lean, effective government. We believe that science and the law are paramount in our work, not politics. We believe in ingenuity and entrepreneurship. And we believe in an economy that can grow without forcing our citizens to trade their health and their environment for jobs. This should all be great news to the next congress. We have a genuine opportunity to work together. The alternative serves no one. The attacks aimed at EPA will be felt by the American people. Pollutants like mercury, smog and soot are neurotoxins and killers that cause developmental problems, asthma in kids and heart attacks in adults. We won’t grow our economy by exposing our workers to more pollution. I want to meet on that common ground and get to work.

Let me close by recognizing another great part of EPA’s 40 years: our people. I have the privilege of working alongside some of the most dedicated and compassionate public servants this nation has ever seen. Some of them decided when they were eight or nine years old that they wanted to work at EPA. Some have been with the agency since 1970 and have seen it all. Some of them have incredible stories about why they came to EPA. One young man’s mother was diagnosed with leukemia, part of a cancer cluster in her hometown. EPA helped clean up the pollution. He said that, “If I have been able to make a difference for at least one community in my time with the Agency, then I have succeeded at paying it forward for what EPA has done to help my mom.”

There is another good story right here in this room: the lead author of Massachusetts vs. EPA, who came to work at the agency she once sued – to see through the work she sued it to do. Lisa Heinzerling, who with my colleagues here today including Gina McCarthy, Bob Perciasepe and Bob Sussman helped EPA follow the science and follow the Supreme Court to finalize our endangerment finding on greenhouse gases last year.

One of our colleagues who works on air issues wrote to me that he is retiring today after 37 years with EPA. Of his years as part of this agency he said, “I will always be proud to have been a part of one of America’s greatest endeavors.” Looking back at these 40 years I have to agree. We have seen hard won advances have created healthier families, cleaner communities and a stronger America.

Some think it’s time to roll back the clock on those advances. But we know that is not what the American people want. This is a time to use this agency – built and shaped through bipartisan and nonpartisan actions – to serve this country. We can do that again. As easy as it is to tear down or roll back, it is only what we build and only what we advance that lasts beyond elections. Thank you very much.