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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the Coming Together for Clean Water Conference, As Prepared

04/15/2010
As prepared for delivery.

Thank you all for answering the call to come together for clean water. We have a wide collection of state, local and federal officials, industry and nonprofits, environmental advocates and others with us today. I know we have a lot of speakers on the agenda and a lot to cover. I want to take a few minutes to set the stage for why we are here today.

We have come together for a very simple reason: we recognize that clean water is vital to our health, to our environment, and to our economy. We know that if our waters are not safe for fishing and swimming, then our health – and the health of our children – is at dangerous risk for deadly conditions like cancer and neurological disorders.

We have seen how failing to protect our lakes, rivers and streams leads to the loss of irreplaceable natural resources, destroys ecosystems and endangers species. And we know that if we neglect to take action, more beaches will close and more treasured tourist destinations will lose business…more communities will lose jobs – and will have less of what they need to attract new ones. And more governments will be forced to spend money cleaning up pollution we might have prevented.

These are all lessons I learned – one way or another – by growing up in New Orleans. That experience showed me just how important water can be to a community. The Mississippi River, the Gulf Coast and the local wetlands are part of the heritage and culture. They’re a vital part of the economy. The levees and the canals and the waterfront have shaped the city and the lives of its people.

That also has its challenges. Some of you may remember the stretch of the Mississippi that was called “Cancer Alley.” People living in the area got sick at a much higher rate because of the heavy concentrations of pollution in the water. Then – of course – there was the flooding following Hurricane Katrina. After Katrina we learned that the devastation and flooding were so bad because our marshes and wetlands – the area’s natural defenses – had been destabilized and cut away for oil and gas lines. That tragedy taught us an important lesson about preserving and protecting our waters and our wetlands. Growing up where I did explains why I was drawn to study chemical engineering and wastewater in school at Tulane – and why I continued that work in graduate school at Princeton. And it explains why it is such an important issue to me now.

Now, we have come a long way in the restoration and protection of our nation’s waters. Nearly 40 years ago, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which promised to restore and maintain the integrity of our waters, protect aquatic life, and control both point and nonpoint sources of pollution. I was 10 years old the year the Clean Water Act passed. In those years, many of our waters were used as dumps for factories and other facilities. They were in visibly terrible shape. Lake Erie had been declared dead. The coast of California was recovering from a devastating oil spill. The Cuyahoga River was literally flammable. Right here in Washington, DC, the Potomac was covered with nutrient pollution – a green sludge that you could see and smell. Those are just a few examples of waterways that were not fishable, swimmable, or drinkable. But the people came together to demand action. 20 million people – almost one in every 10 Americans at the time – came together for the first Earth Day. That same year the EPA was created, and in a matter of years we had unprecedented clean air and clean water laws on the books. Today many of our waters are ‘recovered’ under the goals of the Act. The status quo has vastly improved.

That period in time is an inspiration to me in my role as Administrator. I want to see a huge leap forward in water quality like we saw in the 70s after the passage of the Clean Water Act. It won’t be easy. But there are gains to be had in the next few years. And those gains will have increasing returns 10, 20, and 40 years down the road. The last 16 months have seen the beginning of that work.

Through the President’s Recovery Act, EPA obligated almost $6 billion for clean water and drinking water projects. The Recovery Act has helped expand water services in Louisville, Kentucky; supported groundbreaking on a treatment facility in Port Wentworth, Georgia; and created or saved 600 jobs in the construction of a treatment plant that will serve areas of South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota.

In the single largest grant ever awarded by EPA, we awarded $430 million for wastewater infrastructure projects in New York. That is expected to create and save thousands of jobs along with the environmental and health benefits.

The Recovery Act also provided funding for cleanups like the Superfund site in New Bedford Harbor in Massachusetts. And l would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the work of our friends over at USDA, who have also dedicated Recovery Funds to clean water. That is just one piece of their extensive clean water efforts.

EPA’s Recovery Act grants have been accompanied by revised and revitalized efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes.

President Obama has committed that we are going to move beyond the studying and the talking and get to the work of restoring and protecting. Some of you may have seen the news yesterday that the Bay’s blue crab population is up 60 percent. That is great news, and a great indication of the foundation we have for continued improvement.

In other communities we’re taking action on long-overdue concerns. Two weeks ago we issued clear standards for protecting the waters affected by mountaintop mining. This week we are taking public comment on nutrient pollution in Florida.

Last year I issued principles that we would like to see on TSCA reform, to know more about the chemicals that make their way into our waters. And last month, I put forward the broad outline of an innovative strategy for EPA’s work with your partners in drinking water protection.

Last but not least, we are increasing our 2011 budget requests for SRFs and water pollution control grant funds that will go to states and tribes. All told, more than 45% of EPA’s 2011 budget request is dedicated to cleaner, safer water.

So – we’ve made a pretty good start. But there is plenty of unfinished business. A 2004 report from the states showed that about 44% of stream miles and 64% of lake acres studied were not clean enough for fishing and swimming. In too many communities sanitary sewers aren’t reliable in wet weather. And there are still far too many species threatened or endangered in unhealthy watersheds.

We also face new challenges. Our waters are working much harder than they did 40 years ago, with about 80 million more people relying on them each day.

There are growing concerns over pollutants from less conventional sources. Not the visible oil slicks and industrial waste of the past, but the invisible pollutants that we’ve only recently had the science to detect.

There are a range of chemicals that have become more prevalent in our waterways, our products and our bodies in the last 50 years – and we must be vigilant about tracking, evaluating and – where necessary – reducing exposure to those chemicals.

We also have work ahead of us to ensure that the gains made in most communities over the last 40 years will reach every community in the years ahead.

Many tribal nations still face dramatic water quality challenges. Urban communities are coping with disproportionate levels of pollution in their water – which is why EPA is developing an Urban Waters Initiative to help connect residents with their local waters. In the same way – but with different challenges – rural communities are struggling with water quality. We must find ways to ensure their access to clean rivers, streams and lakes.

This is why we are here. We’ve come together to discuss these many challenges and outline the actions we must take. It’s not an easy task – and not something we will be able to do in a few hours.

But it presents us with opportunities to shape the work we will do in the years ahead.

I see opportunities for innovation – innovation that will be critical to tackling our significant environmental and economic challenges. Stronger protections are going to have to be met with new ideas and cost-effective strategies. If we want our waters to work harder, we have to work smarter.

I see opportunities for public participation. In light of our new challenges – and the range of shapes they take – we need broad community engagement. To begin that process, we published the topics of this meeting online and invited public comments. In the last few weeks we’ve received more than 300 responses on the issues you will consider today. Interestingly, one of the most common themes was the need for greater public outreach and education.

One man wrote that cleaning up the Chesapeake would benefit from more programs where “citizens can easily become engaged in restoration efforts."

One woman wrote about the "frustrating barriers” presented by “the maze of conflicting and/or disconnected programs and funding sources.”

Another man wrote that "Participation...builds a watershed community and a sense of obligation that the problem should be addressed by everyone," while another, talking about education, wrote "When the EPA and other organizations educate and train students continuously, we develop a population of people who care about water quality and identify with their local bodies of water." You’ll see a summary of the comments in your materials today. These are the voices that need to be part of this discussion going forward.

Finally, I see opportunities for collaboration. We’ve asked representatives from industry to advocacy to engineering areas to be here because we want everyone pulling in the same direction. Collaboration should be a fundamental, common-sense aspect of our work together – even and especially in the places where we may not agree.

We have had 40 years of advances in environmental protection and clean water. All of us have benefitted from it, as have our children and – for some of us – our grandchildren. Many of the people in this room played a part in making that progress possible. 40 years of healthier families, cleaner communities and a stronger America.

Now, we must get to work on the next 40 years. I look forward to hearing about your progress today and working together for clean water in the years to come. Thank you very much.