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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the National Conversation on Public Health and Chemical Exposure, As Prepared

06/26/2009
As prepared for delivery.

I’m glad to be with you today, and to join you in launching this National Conversation. This initiative has tremendous potential to make a difference in the protection of families and communities. And engaging the public – bringing them into the issue – is especially important at this moment for our respective agencies, and our country.

One of the most significant challenges we face right now is in restoring the American people’s faith in our ability to protect the air, water, and land. Serving the public’s right-to-know; ensuring that our data is based on the best science and full transparency; and making sure that it is as accessible as possible – that is how we begin to rebuild public trust. It helps us deal with concerns about chemical exposure, and it builds a foundation for confronting the long list of agenda items we have.

A national conversation is a major step in the right direction. There are a number of other steps we’ve been taking at EPA.

One of the things we have been doing in our first few months is to try and refocus our work on core issues – our “meat and potatoes” issues like chemical management. When I first arrived at EPA in late January, I identified the need to strengthen this country’s chemical management program as one of my top priorities. This year, we restored the Toxics Release Inventory to its prior, stronger reporting requirements, opening the way for a more comprehensive understanding of this important data. TRI is a cornerstone of our mission to protect human health and the environment. Above all, it’s a crucial resource for individuals and communities across the nation.

Another important resource is the National Air Toxics Assessment, or NATA. Just this week, EPA released the latest version of this state-of-the-science tool that estimates health risks from breathing air toxics in this country. The report assessed 180 air toxics, plus diesel particulate matter from stationary and mobile sources. That information is designed to help federal, state, local and tribal governments identify areas and specific pollutants for further evaluation. That way they can better understand and address the risks of cancer, birth defects and other serious health problems.

We’ve committed to taking new actions on dioxins at the DOW site in Michigan. EPA is stepping up our commitment to this site, in partnership with the state of Michigan, so that we can accelerate cleanup and deal with the threats to health and the environment. We are also redoubling our efforts to provide guidance on the science of dioxin health effects to inform cleanup decisions at this site and protect other communities, in Michigan and across the country, facing dioxin contamination.

There are a host of other places where we’ve been active: reinvesting in the Superfund program, taking action to ensure the safety of commonly used pesticides, initiating a program to monitor the presence of toxic pollution in the air around several of our schools. Last week, we issued a Public Health Emergency determination at an asbestos Superfund site in Montana. Investigations have found hundreds of cases of asbestos-related disease in the relatively small communities of Libby and Troy, Montana. And for decades, the disease and death rate from asbestosis in the area was staggeringly higher than the national average. This is the first time EPA has made a finding under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act that conditions at a site constitute a Public Health Emergency. EPA is moving forward with the clean up there, and working alongside the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which will help provide much needed medical care.

So, I am pleased about the progress we’ve made. But there is much more that needs to be done. To help ensure that we have a chemical management program in place that the American public can have confidence in, I’ve asked that we undertake an evaluation of EPA’s existing chemicals program, including the Chemical Assessment and Management Program. We are nearing completion of this evaluation which will help us determine how to more efficiently assess, prioritize, and take action on chemicals that pose a concern – particularly chemicals that pose a threat to children.

Later this summer, we intend to announce efforts to enhance the Agency’s chemical management program and formally engage the environmental community, industry, and a wide array of stakeholders on the best path forward.

I also believe that the time has come for reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, the 30-year old statue for regulating industrial chemicals. EPA intends to work with Congress and all of our stakeholders on this important effort.

In all this, it’s critical to understand that the issues of today and the coming years are changing. I recently sat on a panel with William Ruckelshaus, who some of you may know served as the very first EPA Administrator. On the panel we discussed how the “low-hanging fruit” of water protection has, for the most part, already been addressed. Administrator Ruckelshaus put it well when he said that environmentalists in the 1970s could talk about problems that people could see, touch, and smell. If it was a problem with water, they might be able to taste the problems too.

Today, the portfolio of pollution and other challenges is different. Chemicals seep into our water and land from a variety of less-conventional places. They come in different shapes and sizes. We have to develop effective ways to manage non-point sources of pollution like agricultural and livestock runoff, and pharmaceuticals. We are being proactive about detection and prevention. But resolving some of these issues without single major sources, and without single visible effects, is a new challenge.

That is where a campaign like the National Conversation can be very effective. It allows us to move beyond traditional roles as regulators or enforcers and try to communicate a sense of shared purpose and individual responsibility. That’s important when household items that you and I use every day can have long-term impacts on our environment. Take for example something that happened recently in Spokane, Washington. Spokane has put in place a near-total ban on dishwasher detergents containing phosphates. Spokane took action because the chemicals were reaching the Spokane River and leeching oxygen, killing the fish and other life. But some of the residents of Spokane – people who no doubt care about the environment – began driving 45 minutes and crossing into Idaho to buy bootleg detergent – the kind with phosphates. They believe it works better. And they don’t see the immediate connections between cleaner dishes and a dirtier river.

So some of the challenges ahead of us are that chemical management isn’t always simply an issue of the Agency cracking down on big polluters. The answer is not to step in and regulate every dishwasher. We have to do a better job of educating people, of facilitating communication and collaboration between individuals, communities and businesses. And programs like the National Conversation can put environmental protection in the hands of the people. It can help them help themselves.

Finally, as we undertake this conversation, we have to be mindful that we are at a critical moment of world leadership. Around the globe, other nations are looking to us for action. We saw a great example of that at the global environment summit in Nairobi earlier this year. For years, U.S. policy had been to oppose any binding international standards on mercury levels. This year, we agreed to join in the effort to lower the levels of mercury worldwide. Once we changed that policy and committed our support, other countries like China and India came right to the table. They were perfectly willing to follow our lead, but unwilling to act without us. That is the power we have to make a difference, to be the standard-bearer. As we seek to better manage toxic chemicals, we should be mindful of the global implications, and the example that we’re setting for other nations.

So, we have our work cut out for us. Among others, our tasks in the years ahead include enhanced protections for children, and consideration of aggregate exposures from multiple chemicals when evaluating risk. We need to use the best available science, and make information on the health and safety of chemicals more readily available to the public. Ultimately, our work is built on the premise that environmental protection is about human protection. It’s about family protection and community protection. It’s about safeguarding people in the places where they live, work, play, and learn. Initiating this conversation, and providing this information is where that starts. I look forward to working with all of you in the years ahead. Thank you very much.