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Speeches By EPA Administrator

 

Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to the NAACP, As Prepared

07/24/2011
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As prepared for delivery.

Thank you for inviting me here today to share some things EPA is doing in your communities to make them cleaner, healthier and more prosperous. Let me also take a moment to recognize and thank the NAACP chapters that helped organize community meetings and outreach during the Deepwater Horizon Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I thank you for working with us so closely and for stepping up to serve your community in a time of need. I know that spirit of service is what informs the work every person here does in your own communities across the country. That special role each of you plays at the local level is something that has always inspired me.

In fact, it was something I learned at a very young age from my father, who worked as a Postal Service Delivery Man in New Orleans. When my father came back from World War II, working with the postal service was one of the few good jobs available to an African American in the South at the time. To my Dad, it was more than a job. He knew the people on his route. When someone’s Social Security check came in the mail, he’d take the time to ring the bell to hand-deliver those checks that his neighbors relied on. He set an example for me. He showed me that some of the greatest fulfillment we could get out of life comes from helping others and working together as part of a community.

I grew up wanting to serve and help people the way my father did. My parents encouraged me to be a doctor and so I went to college as a pre-med student. In college, along with my pre-med classes, I took a few chemical engineering classes. That’s when I first began to look at environmental issues. I began to realize that – instead of helping people when they got sick – I could help people by making sure they didn’t get sick in the first place. I could do that by protecting the air we breathe, safeguarding the water we drink and cleaning up the lands where we live and work.

This is what environmentalism and my job at EPA are all about. By protecting our environmental health, we’re protecting our own health and the health of our children.

That is a critical issue for our communities. African Americans and other minority and low-income communities have traditionally lived in the shadows of some of the worst pollution. Take, for example, what happened to air quality during last week’s heat wave. When the temperature rises, it exacerbates existing air pollution problems, raising the risks of asthma and other illnesses. On Friday, the vast majority of the country had air quality rated Good to Moderate. But some communities we were seeing air quality that was rated Unhealthy or Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups. In those communities, the air was so degraded that it was potentially harmful for residents to just step outside. And it was especially dangerous for the children.

The Unhealthy air quality was recorded in both Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. Washington is 55 percent African American, while Baltimore is 63 percent African American and has a median household income almost $13 thousand below the national average. In Richmond, VA the air was reported as unhealthy for sensitive groups, meaning that children, the elderly and other vulnerable groups were at a higher risk of health effects. Richmond is 51 percent African American. Their median household income there is also $13 thousand below the national average. The city of Cleveland – where the air was unhealthy for sensitive groups – is 50 percent African American and has 25 percent of its families living below the poverty level.

These kinds of disparities can have very serious consequences. Heart disease, cancer and respiratory illnesses are three of the top four most fatal health threats in America. All three are linked to environmental factors – pollution like lead, mercury, arsenic, smog and other contaminants. And all three have an overwhelming impact on black communities.

I know this issue is a focal point for the NAACP. Your recent report about coal plants and pollution found that 8 million people live within three miles of coal power plants. That helps explain why African Americans enter emergency rooms for asthma treatments at three-and-a-half times the average rate than whites do. Why, tragically, African Americans die from asthma attacks twice as often. And why mortality rates for cancer are higher for us than for any other group.

We also need to recognize that environmental challenges don’t end with health challenges. There are other far-reaching consequences as well. There are costs to businesses when their workers are at greater risk of chronic diseases. There are costs to employers that lose productivity when workers have to call in sick.

At the community level, environmental degradation can turn away investments and new businesses, costing us jobs and economic prosperity.

There are costs to our future as our students miss time in class. I received a letter this week from a father whose young boy suffers from severe asthma. He said that his son has missed at least 10 days of school every year for the last 5 years due to asthma directly related to the quality of the air in his community. He also wrote in his letter – and I quote – “We have spent on average, nearly $1,400 a year on medical bills and associated costs for his illness…not to mention associated costs of staying home from work to take care of him.” So as you can see, there are also serious costs to American families.

That is why the EPA is working to make all of our communities cleaner, healthier and more prosperous.

Earlier this year we took one of the most significant clean air actions in years by proposing Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. Those standards require American power plants to use proven and widely available pollution control technologies to cut harmful emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases. It’s estimated this safeguard will prevent 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks. It will also help avert 120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and ensure about 11,000 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children.

We recently finalized another clean air standard, the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which is designed to cut millions of tons of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution from power plants. Those emissions result in dangerous soot and smog, which can drift across state lines from a source in one state to the air people are breathing in another. The Cross State Air Pollution Rule will improve safeguards for 240 million Americans, many of them living in the cities I just listed.

And contrary to what you might hear, we’re also expecting both of these standards to help create jobs. From factory workers to welders to pipefitters – Americans will be put to work installing, maintaining and operating the required pollution control technology. Those are good jobs that can’t be sent overseas.

We’re also taking important actions to clean up our water. One of the signature steps we’re taking is an Urban Waters Federal Partnership with the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Interior and Agriculture. Distressed urban waters have the potential to be places where new businesses want to set up shop and hire workers, where educational, recreational and social opportunities abound and where residents can come together as a community. We want to reconnect residents with their local waters, and empower them to revitalize those areas into community centerpieces. As a start, we’ve announced seven pilot programs spanning the country and in a wide range of communities…from Los Angeles to the Bronx, Denver to New Orleans, Indiana to Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

We’re also revitalizing communities by investing in them and the local workforce. Earlier this month we awarded $6.2 million for 21 organizations across the country to train local residents and place them into good, green jobs. These workers would help clean up brownfield sites that are typically located in underserved communities. We are confident in the job-creating possibilities of this program because of the long history of success in EPA’s brownfields program.

In its lifespan, the public and private partnerships fostered through this program have helped to create more than 70,000 new jobs in the United States. As of June 1, 2011, the brownfields job training program itself has trained and placed almost 5,400 people in full-time, sustainable jobs. Their work not only cleans up contaminated lands and protects the health of people living there – it also transforms these areas into healthier, stronger places to raise a family and grow a business, boosting the economy and sparking more jobs in areas where they are needed the most.

Environmental disparities have the power to deny opportunity and hold back progress. They affect our health, our economy and our prospects for the future. But we can promote equality by working for environmental quality. That’s a message I hope you’ll take back with you to your local NAACP chapters, and continue to work on ways we can come together to protect our health, strengthen our economy, and safeguard our environment for years to come. Thank you very much.