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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to the National Congress of American Indians, As Prepared

03/04/2009
As prepared for delivery.

It’s an honor to speak with you this morning as a representative from one government, to the representatives of the many tribal governments here. And I’m pleased to welcome those of you that are visiting to Washington, DC.

Some of you may know that I was confirmed just over a month ago. I came to Washington from New Jersey, and when I went before the senate for my confirmation hearing, I asked a few people from home to join me. That included four residents of the Ramapough Mountain community in Upper Ringwood, New Jersey.

The Ramapough community is situated on top of the Ringwood Superfund site. During my time as the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, I had the chance to work with the people there in the cleanup process. In fact, it was just about a year ago that I toured the site with some of the local officials and residents.

Ringwood had been used for the disposal of lead-based paint sludge, an industrial by-product. Over the years, run-off and leaky storage cases had contributed to pollution in the ground and illnesses for the people who called the area home. Many of the residents battled asthma, cancer, and other diseases, even though they had been assured that the area was clean.

In 1994, after years of cleanup efforts, Ringwood was removed from the Superfund site list. But the problems there persisted. After extensive, continued work, and the tremendous engagement of the Ramapough community, it was re-designated a Superfund site in 2006.

The cleanup is moving forward today. But not in time to prevent the harm that had been done. Not before children had gotten sick. Not before parklands and drinking water had been polluted. Not before the people came to feel that the EPA had let them down.

The story of that site and the story of those people are vivid reminders to me of how this agency can be a force for good if it does its job well and what can go wrong if we fall short.

When I was nominated by the President-elect to lead EPA, a woman named Vivian Milligan, one of the most active members of the Ramapough community called me and cautioned me with one simple request. “Don’t forget about us.”

So, I asked Vivian and some of her friends to join me in Washington in January, not to offer them empty promises, but to make very clear the same point I am here to make to you today: The EPA is back on the job.

Not only are we back on the job, but we are guided by unwavering, core principles – principles articulated by President Obama – that shape every action I take as EPA Administrator.

The first is scientific integrity. Science will be the backbone for all EPA programs. Public health and environmental laws that Congress enacts depend on rigorous adherence to the best science. The President believes, as do I, that when EPA addresses scientific issues, it should rely on the expert judgment of its career scientists and independent advisors. When scientific judgments are suppressed, misrepresented or distorted by political agendas, Americans can lose faith in their government to provide strong public health and environmental protection.

The second is the rule of law. The laws that Congress writes and directs EPA to implement leave room for policy judgments. But policy decisions should not be disguised as scientific findings. I will not compromise the integrity of EPA’s experts in order to advance a preference for a particular regulatory outcome.

Finally, the EPA’s actions must be absolutely transparent. In 1983, then-Administrator Ruckelshaus promised that EPA would operate "in a fishbowl" and “will attempt to communicate with everyone from the environmentalists to those we regulate, and we will do so as openly as possible." One of the great products of that inclusiveness and transparency was the 1984 EPA Indian Policy.

Now, these commitments won’t be more than talk if they’re not supported with real, tangible measures that advance the protection of human health and the environment. And we are already getting started.

In a little more than 30 days, we’ve already announced plans to review the California waiver on auto emissions, we’ve made clear our intention to reconsider a memo from the previous administration that would weaken provisions in the Clean Air Act, and we’ve pledged to monitor the levels of toxic air pollution around our schools.

And there’s more to come. In his proposed budget, President Obama gave the EPA the highest level of support we have seen in our 39 year history.

We have much to do in restoring the country’s faith in our abilities to protect the nation’s air, water, and land – now and for future generations.

Not only that, we have much to do to ensure that communities directly impacted by environmental degradation have not only a voice, but a seat at the decision-making table.

That’s why I’m glad that you have all come to Washington to share your ideas, and urge your Senators and Representatives to act on these priorities. I hope you will stay involved and engaged in helping us to preserve our environment and protect the health of everyone.

Because these challenges affect your communities in undeniable ways. Right now, hazardous waste sites and open dumps are rampant in tribal lands, exposing their residents to dangerous toxins and possible contamination of land and water.

Many tribal lands, economies and cultures are being threatened by climate change, from the loss of fish habitats in our rivers and streams to eroding shorelines that are threatening native Alaskan villages.

And in the face of these needs, less than 5% of tribes actually implement federal environmental programs.

We have a long way to go towards ensuring that you are partners in this effort. Interactions like we are having today will forge a long standing and productive relationship to address these challenges.

We’ve already taken a few steps forward with the American Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Stimulus Package that will restore jobs and put vital resources back into communities where they are needed most.

The ARRA entrusts EPA with allocating $7.2 billion to programs and projects where we have legislative authority and oversight responsibility. That will allow us to strengthen programs like the Clean Water Revolving Fund; the Safe Drinking Water Revolving Fund; Brownfields and Superfund clean up efforts; Diesel Retrofitting; leaking underground storage tanks; and, of course, additional funds for EPA’s Office of Inspector General to monitor our expenditures under the law.

While we face a huge challenge in ensuring that we get these dollars out to tribes, states and communities as quickly as possible, we have also been given a phenomenal opportunity to invest heavily in “green jobs” and a healthier environment.

I know that the National Congress of American Indians is already well aware of the provisions of the stimulus package and its potential positive impact on Indian country.

My colleagues at EPA Headquarters and in the Regional offices are working with tribes and our other federal partners, including the Indian Health Service, on implementation of the $90 million targeted in the law for drinking water and wastewater facilities in Indian country.

That funding is in addition to the annual federal budget allocation for adequate drinking water and wastewater treatment to Indian and Alaska Native families. It’s money that will help us to address the great disparity in safe drinking water and adequate wastewater facilities for Native Americans.

And these are not the only issues regarding the Agency’s Tribal Program.

I hope to resolve the question of the proper location of the American Indian Environmental Office in the Agency. The AIEO has been located administratively within the Office of Water since the 1990s. There have been, and continue to be calls from many of you here today for AIEO to be located within the Office of the Administrator, or as an independent program office. I know this is a critical issue for tribes, and I will be examining it as we move forward.

Many of you have raised the idea of an EPA and Tribal Leaders Summit. The AIEO is beginning the planning process for a Tribal Leaders Summit this Fall here in Washington, DC. That summit will be attended by me, my Deputy Administrator, and major programmatic Assistant and Regional Administrators, with a focus on improving Agency tribal programs and responses to climate change. I am asking you all, and all tribal leaders, to join us in moving the EPA-Tribal partnership forward.

Lastly, we must ensure the adequate implementation of programs in Indian country. Many tribes have made tremendous strides over the years, but as I said, only a few are able to implement vital federal programs.

We will continue working with tribes to develop program capacity and help them take affirmative steps. We want them to assume regulatory and management responsibilities of the programs affecting their lands.

Before I close, I want to acknowledge an important milestone for all of us. As many of you know, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the EPA Indian Policy – the first Indian Policy established by a federal agency. American Indians have been extraordinary contributors to the environmental movement since it first began to gather momentum decades ago.

In the last 25 years, we have established the American Indian Environmental Office, represented here today by Director Carol Jorgensen.

We have dramatically increased the funding and staffing of EPA's tribal program, and worked with tribes and Congress to amend core program statutes and allow tribal assumption of program authority.

We formed the EPA Tribal Operations Committee which includes elected tribal officials and senior EPA leadership – myself included – and built in specific tribal metrics in our Strategic Plan and annual performance efforts to make sure they are meeting your needs.

And we continue to train EPA staff members on how to work effectively with Tribal Governments.

The EPA Indian Policy was signed in 1984, and has been reaffirmed by every Administrator since, largely because of these many successes.

I’m eager to continue that work with you, so that we can reaffirm this Policy, and extend this important relationship. I’m looking forward to a long and effective relationship with tribes, with NCAI, and with other tribal organizations in the development and implementation of environmental programs to protect public health and the environment.

I’m excited to join you, the first environmentalists in this land, and will look to you as leaders to help move toward our shared goals. Thank you again for asking me to be with you today.