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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, As Prepared

03/18/2009
As prepared for delivery.

Let me thank all of you for coming to meet with us this week. I also want to thank my colleagues who have already spoken to you, or will be coming to speak with you later today and this week.

Many of you know that joining the EPA as Administrator is a return home for me. I started my career here as a staff level scientist in the late 80s and worked with the agency for 16 years.

Of those 16 years, 13 of them were at the regional level. I also served as the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

I am familiar with many of the issues you face at the state level. I’ve seen first-hand the work you have to do to coordinate federal government and state government efforts. And I look forward to partnering with all of you to make sure we are doing the best work for the people that we serve.

Because I’ve also seen first hand how important that work can be in those people’s lives.

When I was working in New Jersey I had the chance to meet a number of the residents of the Ramapough Mountain community in Upper Ringwood, New Jersey.

The Ramapough community is a small cluster of neighborhoods about 35 miles from Manhattan. It is situated right on top of the Ringwood Superfund site.

Ringwood had been used for years as disposal grounds for lead-based paint sludge. Over the years, runoff and leaky storage cases had contributed to pollution in the ground and the water.

That was the suspected cause of a number of chronic illnesses for the people who called the area home. Many of the residents battled asthma, cancer, and other diseases, even though they had been assured that the area was clean.

In 1994, after years of cleanup, Ringwood was removed from the Superfund site list. But the problems there persisted. After a long period of continued work, and the tremendous engagement of the Ramapough community, it was re-designated a Superfund site in 2006.

The good news is that the cleanup is moving forward today.

The bad news is that it didn’t happen before the harm had been done. Not before children had gotten sick. Not before families and businesses had decided to move out of the area. Not before parklands and drinking water had been polluted.

And certainly not before the people came to feel that the EPA had let them down.

The story of that site and those people are vivid reminders to me of how EPA can be a force for good if it does its job well – and what can go wrong if we fall short.

It illustrates clearly that environmental protection is about human protection. It’s about community protection and family protection.

It’s about safeguarding public health in the places where people live, work, play and learn.

Right now, we have much to do to restore the country’s faith in our ability to protect the air, water, and land.

We have to ensure that communities directly impacted by environmental degradation have not only a voice, but a seat at the decision-making table.

And we have to revitalize ourselves and the future of the agency.

When I finished graduate school, there was only one place for people who were talented, smart, and passionate about protecting the environment – and that was the EPA.

It’s the same reason that a lot of you are here right now. We must return to that so that we are building the best, the brightest, and the most diverse EPA ever.

Finally, we have to function as representatives to the world. Around the globe, other nations are looking to us for action.

We just saw a great example of that. For years, our official policy was to oppose any binding international standards on Mercury levels. Last month, our representatives at a global environment summit in Nairobi agreed to join an international treaty to lower the levels of mercury worldwide.

Once we changed that policy and committed our support, other countries like China and India came to the table.

They were perfectly willing to follow our lead, but completely unwilling to act without us.

That is the power we have to make a difference, to be the standard-bearer and have a truly global impact.

And that global impact is going to be played out at the local level.

To guide us in that work, we have set out three core principles that must inform everything we do.

The first is that science must once again be the determining factor in EPA decision making.

If we go back to science we will make decisions on clean air and water that are based on human health. It will lead us to places where we can identify and articulate very clearly what it is we face and what we must do.

In just the last month, we have begun the arduous processes of re-examining previous decisions made at the agency – largely because of questions raised about whether science was trumped by politics.

Whenever that happens, it may be a momentary victory for one side or the other, but it dilutes our effectiveness as an agency. It dilutes the American people’s ability to look at EPA and see us as a guardian of the things that they value.

And it requires that we use our time and resources to look back when we absolutely need to be moving ahead.

The second guiding principle is the rule of law.

The lawsuits that follow EPA are inevitable. But there have been some important times when lawsuits have crystallized what we need to remember every day at EPA.

And that is that the laws are in place because Congress decided and the people determined that action was needed.

If we don’t uphold those laws then we have let the system down – but more importantly, we are affecting people’s health.

When we don’t win a court case on particulate matters or ozone, it’s sad for the lawyers involved, but it’s extraordinarily tragic for human health.

Lastly, we must operate with unparalleled transparency. Transparency will aid us in making sure that science and the law come first.

And it will send a very clear signal to the American people that we work for them. I want everyone to know who I am meeting with and what I’m talking about.

It’s extraordinarily important that people believe that they can get inside the walls of the EPA and that it is not governed by any one interest or industry.

All of that is important to what you are doing.

Because the safety of our drinking water is one of our most fundamental elements of our overall mission. In fact, it may very well be the most common interaction citizens have with the work of the EPA.

People drink water from a tap every single day – a simple, unglamorous thing that happens in our homes, at work, and at our children’s schools.

When they do that, they deserve the assurance and confidence that what they put into their bodies is safe.

Parents deserve to know that the water they give their children is clean and free from harmful chemicals.

Taxpayers deserve to know that their water infrastructure is maintained and replaced.

And we need to know that drinking water systems are complying with regulations – as much to meet standards as to ensure that we are providing all the tools needed to help them do that.

The great news is that we have plenty of support.

The President and Congress made that abundantly clear with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

In a very short window of time, EPA will be responsible for investing over $7 billion in “shovel ready” projects that protect human health, safeguard the environment, and grow green jobs in our communities.

That is an immediate funding infusion that exceeds the Agency’s entire budget request from 2009.

As I’m sure you all know, $6 billion of that will go to clean and drinking water programs in your states – primarily through the State Revolving Funds.

You and your colleagues will play a huge role in distributing and managing this money. I can’t stress enough the importance of transparency and oversight of every single project.

President Obama has made explicitly clear that we are to use this funding to create and save jobs, fund critical water infrastructure, and make the most of the opportunity for Green Reserve Projects.

I want to address some of the concerns you may have about the 20% green project reserve. I know for many of you this seems like an obstacle – but it is really an opportunity to build water systems for the 21st century.

We need to make sure that our utilities are energy efficient and water efficient. We need to seek green solutions to water quality problems and we need to be more innovative in how we protect and treat drinking water and clean water.

Along with the ARRA, the President has also proposed in the budget he sent to congress last month the highest level of funding support that EPA has seen in our 39 year history.

That is, of course, great news. But let’s be clear: it also means that we have the highest level of expectation that we have seen in our 39 year history.

The short version of this speech is this: Right now, we have greater opportunities to protect public health and the environment than any other time. And I fully expect to partner with you to seize those opportunities.

Now, more than ever, we must be innovative and forward looking. The environmental challenges faced by Americans across our country are immense in scale and urgency. But they will be met.

Which brings me back to New Jersey and the Ramapough Community: When I was nominated to lead EPA, a woman named Vivian Milligan, one of the most active members of the community called me and cautioned me with one simple request: “Don’t forget about us.”

So, I asked Vivian and the other members of the Ramapough community to join me in Washington, on the Senate floor at my confirmation hearing.

Not to offer them empty promises, but to make very clear the same point I have made to everyone I have met with since January. It’s the same point that I am here to make to you today:

And it is that EPA is back on the job.

That means that the work you do – that the work you have been doing for years – has nothing less than my full support. And the full support of the President.

The EPA is once again guided by an ambitious vision of public health protection and environmental preservation. You are essential to that vision.

I can’t think of a higher calling then coming back here to work with all of you to address the urgent, ongoing and – in many cases – long overdue issues we face.

We have the support. We have the moment we need. Let’s make the most of it.

Thank you very much.