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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to the National Congress of American Indians, As Prepared

03/01/2010
As prepared for delivery.

It’s an honor to speak with you this morning as a representative from one government to the representatives of many tribal governments. I’m pleased to welcome you to Washington, DC. I have worked closely with tribal communities throughout my career – on Great Lakes projects in New York, for example; or with the Ramapough community that I came to know very well when I was Commissioner of the DEP in New Jersey. In the last 12 months, I’ve visited tribal communities and sat at meetings with community leaders. And I want to begin today by telling you about a trip I made earlier this year.

In January I traveled to Arizona, where I took a tour with some of our friends from the Salt River Pima--Maricopa Tribe. I saw examples of great progress that’s been made in just the last year. I saw enormous potential in the community. And I saw examples of work we still have to do.

We passed through an area where more than 2,000 tribal members have water that doesn’t meet EPA standards for arsenic. Almost one in every ten tribal homes lacks safe drinking water and wastewater handling. Most of you know that that is ten times the rate of non-tribal homes in the US. In a place like Arizona, where water is so scarce, the concerns raised by that disparity are magnified even further.

On our tour, we also passed by illegal dump sites, which I know are a persistent challenge in tribal areas across the country. Hazardous waste sites and open dumps expose tribal residents to dangerous toxins and contamination of land and water. That presents a serious health and environmental hazard. But make no mistake, it is also a significant economic obstacle. At a meeting with regional tribal leaders, one man stood up and explained how he hears about the devastation of a 10 percent national unemployment rate. Then he said, “You know, I would do anything for a
10 percent unemployment rate – because where I am, 50 percent of the people are unemployed.” We want to work with you to address those challenges, and I believe that environmental protection and restoration play a part in revitalizing your economies.

Back on the tour we traveled to the Cottonwood Wetland, an outdoor education center that EPA helps support. It’s also the home to cultural events for the tribe. Being there brought to mind the many tribal wetlands that are right now are under threat from the changing climate. Climate change is not a distant threat to Alaskan native villages like Newtok and Kivalina or the 181 other villages that need to be relocated or are facing serious threats because of eroding shorelines. Many other tribes are dealing with the loss of fish habitats in rivers and streams, which is an economic and a cultural issue. Outside of New Orleans, Louisiana – where I grew up – almost 40 miles of wetlands along the coast disappear every year. 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 removes the natural buffers along the coasts, leaving their homes far more vulnerable to flooding and damage from hurricanes. The young people of the tribes are moving away and the entire community is talking about relocating from the place that they’ve called home for centuries.

Those are some of the challenges that community is facing. And I know they mirror a lot of what you are wrestling with in your own communities. But they also showed me how they are addressing these challenges.

They took me to a completed Brownfields cleanup, where a landfill has been remediated to make way for new developments. I saw an innovative landfill energy facility that is capturing methane from solid waste and reusing it – profitably and cleanly – for energy. Right now there are projects in the works that will provide drinking water access for more than 6,700 tribal homes, and wastewater access to more than 5,600 tribal homes in the state of Arizona alone. Last year the San Carlos Apache Tribe began construction on a Recovery Act funded drinking water project that uses green energy and water efficiency technologies. That’s creating new green jobs on tribal lands and will provide safer drinking water to over 1,000 homes. Through the Indian Health Service, construction began in September 2009 on an arsenic treatment center tribe. I even got to see a rare bald eagles’ nest – which was an absolutely incredible experience.

What I saw in Arizona was what I know exists in tribes across the country. Some very deep-seated challenges, as well as a wealth of opportunities.

2009 was a year of renewed partnership between our governments. EPA celebrated the 25th year of its Indian Policy. After consulting with the National Tribal Caucus and EPA leadership, we relocated EPA’s American Indian Environmental Office to the Office of International Affairs, under their 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. In November President Obama hosted a Tribal Nations Conference at the White House, and directed all Federal agencies to develop action plans on “Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribal Governments.” We also took steps, through stronger partnerships and the Recovery Act, to begin work on some of the longstanding environmental and economic issues facing tribal communities. The water grants in Arizona were just a fraction of the $90 million that EPA and the Indian Health Service provided in Recovery Act funds for drinking water and wastewater services in tribal communities. Wastewater and drinking water projects completed with recovery act funds will serve over 30,000 Native American homes. That’s one step towards closing the gap in water quality that we see between tribal and non-tribal homes. Addressing those long-standing water issues is also going to help bring in new jobs and new opportunities. And let me add that the $90 million 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 drinking water and wastewater treatment to Indian and Alaskan Native families.

2010 is a year to build on what’s been done. In January I highlighted Building Strong State and Tribal Partnerships as one of my seven priorities for EPA’s future. We know that you are responsible for the day-to-day mission of environmental protection. In many cases, tough times have gotten even tougher. Fiscal challenges are pressuring you to do more with less – and we want to ensure that you have the support you need at the federal level. Strong partnerships and accountability are more important than ever. EPA will do its part to support state and tribal capacity. Through strengthened support and oversight we will do what we can to ensure that programs are consistently delivered.

We’ve begun by proposing increased support for states and tribes in our annual budget request. That includes $1.3 billion in categorical grants for state and tribal efforts, with $83 million in increased funding to help meet Clean Air Act requirements, and $45 million more for water enforcement and permitting programs. We’re proposing a new $30 million grant program to help tribes implement environmental programs. In response to concerns expressed by tribes about financial challenges of operating environmental programs, this grant program will help provide essential resources. We’re also requesting a $9 million increase in Tribal General Assistance Program grants.

Just last week we announced two Climate Showcase Community grants in tribal communities. One of the grants will promote energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reductions on the Northern Cheyenne Tribe Reservation in Montana. Another – in the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona – will provide technical expertise on a range of greenhouse gas reduction projects, and help implement curbside recycling, compact fluorescent lighting and Green Building programs.

These are all good news. But this is about much more than the amount of money we put in. We have much to do in restoring the faith in our abilities to protect the nation’s air, water, and land – now and for future generations. Not only that, we have much to do to ensure that communities directly impacted by environmental degradation have not only a voice, but a seat at the decision-making table.

We have a long way to go towards ensuring that you are partners in this effort. We want to make sure that tribal communities are leading the way with us as we clean up contaminated sites and rebuild critical environmental infrastructure; as we work to get running on clean energy so that we can ensure our long-term economic and national security; and as we step up to protect the planet for our children and grandchildren by confronting the rapid advance of climate change. I look forward to working with all of you towards those goals. Thank you.