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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks on the Department of Justice Environmental and Natural Resources Division 100th Anniversary, As Prepared

07/21/2009
Watch the video from this event.

As prepared for delivery.

Thank you for welcoming me today to the United States’ premier law firm. I myself am a scientist and not a lawyer.

But I hope I can count on you to keep an open mind nonetheless.

I may not have worked as a lawyer, but I have, over time, worked with plenty of lawyers. I started my career with EPA as a staff level scientist in the late 80s and worked with the agency for 16 years – much of that time in toxic clean up and enforcement. That gave me the opportunity to see first hand some of the work that goes into environmental law.

I also was able to see the effects that these cases can have on a community. I’ve worked with families and businesses and others who turned to EPA to help them deal with something that was doing real harm in their communities. I know from that experience that it’s hard to overestimate the value of the work you do in making those people’s lives better.

Since I began as Administrator, I’ve come to a number of gatherings like this. I’ve spoken with advocates, officials, and reporters. And each time I’ve tried to send one very clear message: that EPA is back on the job.

It’s a good message – and one that my 18,000 EPA colleagues across the country have been working hard to prove. But I think it’s a message that needs to be updated. It’s time to take it a step further.

I’m here to tell you that not only is EPA back on the job. EPA is leading the way. I want this agency at the front of the action, setting the standard for protection, and creating more opportunities for all of us to safeguard human health and the environment.

To guide us in our work, we have set out three core principles that 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. Since January, we’ve 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 something like 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 – your favorite – the rule of law. And by this I mean faithfully implementing our laws, as handed down by the Congress and interpreted by the courts. We know that the lawsuits that follow EPA are inevitable. We also understand and value the importance of those lawsuits. We know that they are not undertaken lightly. And 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’ve let the system down – but more importantly, we run the risk of affecting people’s health. When we don’t win a court case on particulate matters or ozone, it can be a very unhappy day for you or the other lawyers involved. But it can also be 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. It will send a very clear signal to the American people that we work for them. It’s extraordinarily important that people believe that they can get inside the walls of the EPA, and that it’s not governed by any one interest or industry.

If we hold to those principles, then we have greater opportunities to protect public health and the environment than any other time.

Now, more than ever, we must be innovative and forward looking. You are celebrating your 100th anniversary. Next year, EPA – which was formed in 1970 – will celebrate its 40th anniversary. As we reach these milestones, it is absolutely essential that we are looking ahead, and preparing ourselves for the environmental issues of the 21st century.

We don’t have to look that far. In just the next few years, we will have plenty to work with. As you know, EPA submitted to the White House not too long ago a proposed endangerment finding on greenhouse gases. That is likely to come up here in ENRD at some point.

Congress is working through a landmark clean energy and climate bill as we speak – one that stands to create millions of jobs, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and reduce the emissions that cause climate change. If that bill passes, then, inevitably, with a new set of laws comes a new set of lawsuits. I’m sure we’ll all be busy working through whatever role EPA eventually plays in that process.

The same applies to the Clean Water Act Reauthorization we’re hoping will get through Congress soon. Clarity on that law is critical. During the transition, I remember hearing an alarming figure that EPA staff spends almost half – and sometimes more – of their time working with states to determine whether they have jurisdiction to issue a permit or to take an enforcement action. These are cases where there is a visible impact to environmental quality. But there is little clarity on whether or not “water” means water, or what wetlands are or are not regulated. In some instances, unpredictability is slowing economic growth. Job-creating developments are being held up in extended permitting processes, and investors are discouraged by the risks of unknown regulations and inconsistent standards of compliance.

And that perception of red tape – with the Clean Water Act or any law – can be especially harmful right now, during an economic downturn. EPA is taking steps to offer real solutions in this context. We don’t want to be the agency that is delaying or shutting down economically beneficial projects in communities. We don’t want to slow much needed job creation. We want to be the agency that is facilitating new opportunities. We want the laws to be clear for businesses looking to set up shop. And we want enforcement to be strong so that our neighborhoods are more livable, so that people are healthier, so that all communities are good places for investment and job creation, and so that businesses have a level competitive playing field within which to operate.

These are just a few examples. We should remain diligent in asking ourselves what other challenges we face – both in the immediate future and over the long term. What are the issues going to be decades from now? How can we head off environmental problems before they harm communities, rather than just reacting to the challenges that arise and mitigating damage that has already been done? And how do we create a lasting foundation for the next generation of leaders, those who will take on our responsibilities in the years to come?

I have the sense that, over the years, we have fallen into patterns of thinking that success is stopping the bad stuff whenever we can. But that’s not how we should define success. Success is plotting a course of actions that move us affirmatively in the direction of dealing with public health and environmental issues that are affecting communities across America. Things like strong actions to protect communities disproportionately burdened by pollution; like taking action against repeat violators of our environmental statutes; or like using the law to assist communities through creative and forward-looking SEPs – and much, much more.

Going forward, we have to be thinking boldly and innovatively. Too often – not just here but all over government – the first, tender chutes of any new idea are hit with a shot of Roundup. It comes in the form of saying, "Oh, we've never done that before." It’s a difficult pattern to avoid. But I challenge you as I’ve challenged myself and my colleagues at EPA to return us to a time when we fought hard to nurture and grow those ideas.

The environmental challenges across our country are immense in scale and urgency. But they will be met. My friends, the EPA is once again guided by a bold vision of public health protection and environmental preservation. And as our partners and our advocates, you are essential to that vision. I look forward to working with you. Thank you very much.