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Speeches By EPA Administrator

 

Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at Princeton University, As Prepared

05/08/2009
As prepared for delivery.

I’m pleased to have this chance to meet with all of you today.

Environmental Justice is a subject that is close to my heart, for a lot of reasons.

I grew up in the 9th ward in New Orleans – one of the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina.

My mother was there at that time – and she lost everything she had. It was one of the worst environmental disasters we’ve ever seen in this nation.

Seeing that devastation – and seeing that many of the people hit hardest were poor and African-American – put environmental justice at the front of a lot of people’s minds.

But the truth is that the environmental problems in the 9th ward were there well before Katrina.

Lead in the soil, toxic chemicals in the water, and dangerous particulates in the air have been problems for generations.

The place where I grew up is like a lot of other places in this country.

These are places where the burden of pollution and environmental degradation falls disproportionately on low-income and minority communities – and most often, on the children in those communities.

And we can’t stand by and accept the disparities any longer. As EPA Administrator, I see it as part of my mission to show all Americans that this agency works for them.

This particular moment presents some unique opportunities to do that – and elevate environmental justice to a mainstream, bipartisan issue.

The inauguration of the first African American president, and my subsequent confirmation as the first African American Administrator of this Agency, has forever changed the face of environmentalism in this country.

It sends a clear signal that environmentalism does not come in one shape or size.

Environmentalism is not just about protecting wilderness or saving the polar ice caps. It’s about protecting people in the places where we live, work, and raise our families.

It’s about making our urban and suburban neighborhoods safe and clean, about protecting children in their schools, and workers at their jobs.

We have to meet people where they are, and talk to them about environmental issues in a way that they will understand.

That includes rising above partisanship. If we’re slipping in the polls, we can’t ask climate change to wait. We can’t say that human health is next year’s issue.

The National Environmental Protection Act and the Environmental Protection Agency all began under President Nixon.

The institutional foundations for the work that we do today were laid by a conservative President.

I started at the EPA under President Reagan. At that time, if you we’re interested in helping the environment, EPA was the best place you could be.

And in my 16 years at the EPA and 20 years working on environmental issues, I’ve met and collaborated with all kinds of people, all over the country.

They have come from the full spectrum of political perspectives. They didn’t align the same way on every issue, and they didn’t all take cues from their parties when it came to important environmental issues.

So, I don’t expect all of our support to come from people who label themselves as “environmentalists.”

My mother never understood why I went in to environmental work. She wanted me to be a doctor.

When Katrina hit and she lost her home, she found out that one of the reasons the Hurricane was so devastating was that natural defenses from marshes and wetlands south of New Orleans had been destabilized by siltation, and cut by oil and gas lines.

Today she can go head-to-head with any expert on the environmental effects of those practices. And she can make a compelling argument as to the importance of protecting those natural barriers.

Today, my mother is an environmentalist, whether she knows it or not.

Maybe you’re someone who noticed that the kids in your neighborhood can’t go outside and play in the summer because it’s too dangerous to breathe the air.

Maybe you’re from a fishing community in a place like New Bedford, Massachusetts or along the Chesapeake Bay, and year after year, your local economy suffers because of dangerously polluted waters.

Or maybe you’re a local official and you want cleaner beaches to increase tourism and boost your economy.

We need to meet people where they are, and engage on terms that make sense to them.

We have to go to every community – especially those that have been left out and left behind – and impress upon them that the issues of environmental protection are their issues, and our work is their work.

We also find ourselves in the midst of the worst economic crisis in generation. Those left out and left behind communities are feeling the full weight of the downturn.

Fortunately, we have in President Obama a leader who rejects the false choice between a green environment and a green economy.

He and many others have said that our economic future and our environmental future are inextricably linked.

That approach opens up opportunities to create green jobs in the places where both “green” and “jobs” are needed most.

A central initiative of the Recovery Act provides billions of dollars to weatherize low-income housing.
That will put more than 80,000 Americans to work – at the same time that it saves families hundreds of dollars a year in energy bills. We also get a pretty hefty cut in harmful greenhouse gas emissions in the bargain.

It helps communities that stand to benefit the most from higher employment, lower electricity bills, and cleaner air.

Environmental protection can also be a “force multiplier” for economic growth and other issues.

The people that get sick at two and three times the average rate because of pollution in their neighborhoods are the same people that predominantly get their health care in emergency rooms.

That drives up costs system-wide, slows down much needed reform, and hurts our economy.

In our schools, when children are repeatedly missing school with asthma or allergies, it affects educational outcomes and long-term economic potential.

Not to mention the toll it takes on working parents that have to stay home to tend to their sick kids.
Or in the neighborhood, visible environmental degradation can compound certain problems. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the “broken window theory,” which says that if a building in a neighborhood has a broken window over a sustained period of time, it’s more likely that others windows will get broken and the building will be vandalized.

A similar theory applies in our neighborhoods. If there is one piece of litter that no one picks up, then it’s much more likely that other people will litter. Blight leads to more blight.

Magnify that to include poor air quality, a lack of greenspace, polluted water, and other factors.

Businesses won’t invest in that community if you pay them – which a lot of municipalities try to do in one form or another.

Therefore, economic possibilities are limited. As a result crime is higher, violence is higher, often times drugs use is rampant – and the vicious cycle continues.

For those reasons and more, I made a point in my first day memo to all EPA employees that we had to ensure that our efforts we helping people in underserved and highly vulnerable populations.

In the years ahead, I want to see a full-scale revitalization of what we do and how we think about environmental justice.

This is not an issue we can afford to relegate to the margins. It has to be part of our thinking in every decision we make.

And not just at EPA. The simple fact is, we can’t do it alone. We need your help.

Last month I was in New Bedford, Massachusetts where I met with a group of environmental activists from the community.

One of the people there was a man named Buddy. Buddy was an older African-American man that has been active on environmental justice issues for his community.

When I got there, they told me about Buddy. He was well known – and got that way by being a strong and demanding advocate.

And he was. He came to the meeting with his remarks prepared and letters from people he knew and charts and figures to make his point. And he brought his expectations, too.

He stood up and he told us about his community – which he loved and was proud of. But which needed some attention.

When the meeting was over I walked over to two people who had attended but not spoken. I asked them why they had stayed quiet the whole time. One of them was on older woman. Without blinking she looked up at me and said, “Buddy speaks for us.”

It made me realize just how valuable Buddy is. And how much we need him in communities all across America, doing the great work that he does.

It’s not always an older African American man. It’s not always a long-time resident of the community. Sometimes “Buddy” is a parent concerned about the health of her children. Sometimes “Buddy” comes from the church. Sometimes, from the chamber of commerce. Sometimes “Buddy” is a young [Princeton] student.

But our communities suffer when they don’t have someone like Buddy to speak for them.

To protect the planet, we need engaged and active citizens to protect the environment in our communities – especially in the places where the challenges seem the greatest.

It’s through the action of people like Buddy – who see a problem and decide to make a difference – that we are going to protect and preserve our environment for generations to come.

The EPA is once again guided by an ambitious vision of public health protection and environmental preservation – and environmental justice is central to that vision.

I look forward to making real progress in the months and years ahead, and I hope you’ll join us.

Thank you again.