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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at Congressman John Lewis' Breaking the Glass Ceiling Event, As Prepared

03/17/2012
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As prepared for delivery.

Thank you all. I’m glad to be here with you. Let me wish everyone a happy Women’s History Month.

For more than two decades, I have been fortunate to work in a field that is full of prominent, powerful women in leadership roles. I’m happy to be here to talk about it today, because the impact that women have had in environmental protection is a story that’s not told enough. It’s a history that dates all the way back to the 1930s, when a woman named Rosalie Edge first took on the established notions of environmental conservation. She did that at a time when it was challenging for women to raise their voices on any subject. In later years others like Sylvia Earle, Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Jane Goodall emerged as leading advocates for protecting our health and environment.

Rachel Carson was a transformative figure. Her book Silent Spring changed environmentalism forever. It helped launch the modern-day movement. It’s not a coincidence that her book was published in the early 60s, and by 1970 we had a federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has had six women in its highest office over the course of its 40 year history. Today, many of our senior managers are women – including the wonderful Gwen Keyes-Fleming, our Regional Administrator here in Atlanta.

We also have broad support from women advocating on behalf of their own communities. I think of groups like Women of the Storm from New Orleans. That group formed after Hurricane Katrina, and has become a force to be reckoned with, making several trips to Congress and inviting elected officials to come to New Orleans.

Some of the most vocal advocates for rebuilding and reform have been the women of the city. That includes my mother, who was living in New Orleans when Katrina hit. Today she could compete with EPA’s experts in talking about protecting wetlands and rebuilding the natural buffers that are rapidly disappearing. Some of the Women of the Storm also come from the poorest neighborhoods, and lost everything in the storms. They’ve had to struggle just to get recognition of their situation. That is the kind of strength that cannot be underestimated. It is what is allowing them to make history today.

We also hear from groups like Moms Rising and Mocha Moms – women who are concerned about their health and the health of their children. That is something I identify with in profound ways. I’m here, of course, to speak to you as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. But I’m also here as a woman and a mother. Both of my sons – but in particular my youngest son Brian – have struggled with asthma. Brian spent his first Christmas in the hospital fighting to breathe. That is something I bring to work with me every day, and that I think about when we take actions to protect the air we breathe. It has been my honor to be a part of this history of women’s leadership in environmental and health protection – and to do my part to keep that history moving forward.

Now – environmental protection may be a field where women have broken through glass ceilings, but it’s also field that is under considerable attack today. You only have to turn on the news to hear the consistent drum beat against environmental protections, and that has very real consequences. Last year Republican leadership in the House of Representatives orchestrated a total of 191 votes against environmental protection.

On that point, let me take a moment to thank Congressman Lewis for his continued advocacy on behalf of strong protections for our community.

Now – much of this pushback is happening in response to myths and misleading information. To give one example, there was an assertion made by lobbying and industry groups that the EPA was putting forward a “train wreck” of regulations that will hobble our economy. That claim was repeated in major news outlets and on the floor of Congress. In fact, one of the bills restricting clean air protections was named “The TRAIN Act.” The only problem is, there was no train wreck. The claim was founded on a report speculating about regulations the EPA never actually proposed.

This is an argument being made today that we should put our nation into a race to the bottom, where we try to have the weakest health protections and the most loopholes in our environmental policies. The result of that action would be more asthma, more respiratory illness and more premature deaths. For Americans born after 1970, it would be the first time in their lives that the health and environmental protections they grew up with are not steadily improved, but deliberately weakened. And that will have a profound impact on women’s health.

Chronic health conditions that have been linked to air pollution – like high blood pressure, COPD, and asthma – are more common in women over 50 compared to men in the same age group. Women are also regular sufferers of heart attacks, another potentially deadly medical issue linked to pollution in the environment. In other cases, women’s health is indistinguishable from children’s health. For instance, when it comes to chemicals in our environment. A child born in America today will grow up exposed to more chemicals than a child from any other generation in our history. In 2005 one study found 287 different chemicals in the cord blood of 10 newborn babies – chemicals from pesticides, fast food packaging, coal and gasoline emissions, and trash incineration. They were found in children in their most vulnerable stage. Our kids are getting steady infusions of industrial chemicals before we even give them solid food.

That is why, with the help of American women, we have been working to tackle critical health issues. At the end of last year EPA finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards – or MATS – to limit mercury and other emissions from power plants.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that threatens the health of our children – and before MATS there were no national standards limiting mercury emissions from power plants. That was not for lack of trying either. The Clean Air Act called for these protections 20 years ago. It wasn’t until recently – with the backing of community groups, and mothers, and doctors, and fishers, and environmentalists and others – that we were able to get MATS done. And it was a major victory for our health. Once the MATS standards are fully implemented, they will prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, nearly 5,000 heart attacks and about 130,000 asthma attacks. Behind those numbers are pregnant mothers who can rest a little easier knowing that their children won’t be exposed to harmful levels of mercury in critical development stages, and young people who can go outside with their friends without worrying about an asthma attack.

Last year we also finalized the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, requiring some of our biggest polluters to take action that will prevent smog and soot from traveling from one state to another. That rule was another long overdue step we are taking to protect the air we breathe, the air our children breathe, and to ensure that no community has to bear the burden of another community’s polluters. Once these safeguards go into effect, pollution reductions are projected to prevent up to 34,000 premature deaths. The Cross State Rule alone is estimated to provide benefits as high as $280 billion and prevent about 1.8 million sick days.

If you take away these health protections, then you are taking away vital protections for women’s health. If you are making it easier for big polluters to pollute, then you are making it harder for women and mothers and their children to live healthy lives. That is why I’m asking women across the nation – especially women like all of you here today, who have leadership roles and the power to raise awareness and make change – to bring their voices to this discussion.

Let me just close on that point. Last year I took a trip to Africa, where I made stops in Kenya and Ethiopia. While I was there, I spoke to a panel of women scientists in Ethiopia, who had helped establish the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences and are active in environmental protection. While I was speaking to the panel of women scientists, someone asked me, “Why is it that when we talk environmentalism, we always seem to use words like ‘fight’ and ‘defend’?” My answer was that, in a modern world and a modern economy, clean air and clean water don’t happen by accident. Health safeguards are not a given. It takes vigilance, and it takes hard work to ensure that those fundamental things are protected and passed down to the next generation.

The same thing is true in women’s history. It has taken bold action to achieve fundamental things like equal pay for equal work. And it takes more than a few taps to break glass ceilings. The equality we’ve sought and continue to seek is not something that happens by accident. We have to keep at it.

I’m glad to see so many people here who are ready to work – and I look forward to working with you. Thank you very much.