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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to the Brownfields2009 Conference, As Prepared

11/17/2009
View photos from Administrator Jackson's trip to New Orleans, LA.

As prepared for delivery.

I’m honored to be with you all today. And, I am humbled to be in this great city. A city that nurtured me. A city that fed my love for the wonders of nature and mysteries of science. A city that was a community and gave me and my family opportunities to learn, to grow, and to achieve.

This city is a place where a young woman of color could grow to be in the cabinet of the first president of color. When I left this city for graduate school, I wasn’t in the president’s cabinet. I didn’t have any fancy titles. Reporters weren’t following me around. I was just Lisa T. Perez. And, as a daughter of New Orleans, it is incredibly humbling to return to this city – as the first African-American Administrator for the EPA, working for the first African-American President of the United States.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are meeting at a defining moment – for both our environment and our economy.

We’re still working our way out of the most severe economic downturn since World War II. The President’s Recovery Act has begun to turn things around. We’ve cut taxes for the vast majority of middle class families and provided critical resources to local governments so they can keep teachers, fire fighters and police officers in their jobs. The economy is now growing again for the first time in more than a year – and faster than at any time in two years.

At the same time, our planet is confronting a rapidly changing climate…our country is entering a global race for clean energy with economic and environmental urgency…and our communities are awakening after years of federal inaction on air, water, and land. In this defining moment, community environmental and economic initiatives – like brownfields – have a major role to play.

Today, I want to talk about four broad reasons why the work of the people in this room, and our colleagues across the country, is a critical part of facing our economic and environmental challenges.

The first reason is the most immediate: brownfields cleanups create jobs. This program is based on a very simple idea: doing right by the environment is also doing right by the economy. Government investment in cleaner communities can spark private investments in new businesses and new jobs. This is why brownfields have been a key part of the Recovery Act. This year we’ve made more than $110 million available for job training and remediation – funding that will reach 46 states, four tribes and two U.S. territories. Not only will the cleanup process put people to work – but once that process is complete, the sites themselves can be put back to work.

This is what President Obama means when he talks about building a new foundation for prosperity: investing in our communities to create long-term opportunity for millions of Americans. This is just one reason why brownfields are so vital.

A second reason is that cleaning up brownfields protects public health. Cancer, heart disease and respiratory illness are three of the top four deadliest diseases in America, and account for more than half of all deaths in the United States. All three have links to environmental causes.

Brownfields cleanups allow us to get toxic pollution out of those communities, and put jobs and opportunities in. And the health benefits can go beyond cleaning up pollution. Recently EPA formed an Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities with the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. We’re working together to build – and re-build – communities that are environmentally sustainable and economically resilient – with a strong focus on brownfields sites and other cleanups. We’re also working with USDA as well as our state and tribal agricultural counterparts to promote urban agriculture and farmers’ markets on revitalized sites – increasing access to affordable, healthy food. As the nation engages in this debate about health care reform, we have an opportunity for brownfields cleanups to provide an “ounce of prevention” that will make a huge difference.

The third reason is that brownfields help advance a top priority at EPA: expanding the conversation on environmentalism. Not long ago, I was in Chicago to announce almost $7 million in job training grants for environmental cleanups in the community. I was speaking to a group of local environmental advocates, and at the end of my presentation I went around the table asking if anyone had any questions. I got to an older woman who must have been in her 70s. There was a walker next to her chair and she was sitting up straight and tall, looking me in the eyes. This was Ms. Johnson. Every community has a Ms. Johnson. She has worked in her community for decades. She had come downtown that day from a public housing project on Chicago’s South East Side. She wanted to know how we were planning to clean up her neighborhood, and who we were planning to hire from the neighborhood to do the work. Ms. Johnson may not call herself an environmentalist. But environmental issues are a part of her life and a part of the life of her community. We need her voice in the conversation. And it was a brownfields project that gave us the opportunity to hear her voice.

In too many communities in America, the burdens of pollution and environmental degradation fall disproportionately on poor and minority residents. The brownfields program is an opportunity to engage those communities. We can meet them where they are, and create environmental and economic empowerment in the places where they are needed most. This is just one of the ways we are tackling this issue.

In August we created a new position at EPA – the Associate Assistant Administrator for Outreach, Diversity and Collaboration – to help us coordinate diversity initiatives and ensure that EPA is as welcoming and inclusive as possible. The person in that position will help move us bring together a diverse collection of stakeholders, sitting at the decision making table, and sharing their insights with us. Just last week, I was also proud to add two new team members to accelerate our work on environmental justice and civil rights issues. Lisa H. Garcia will serve as my Senior Advisor on Environmental Justice. Lisa will help elevate EJ issues to the highest levels of the agency and work closely with Charles and others in our Office of Environmental Justice to strengthen all of EPA’s EJ initiatives. And Patrick Sungwook Chang as Senior Counsel for External Civil Rights. Patrick will focus on resolving the Agency’s backlog of pending Title VI complaints and will work closely with senior leaders in the Agency to evaluate and reform the Title VI program.

I’m proud to be here to announce another step in expanding the conversation on environmentalism. EPA is designating 10 Environmental Justice Showcase communities across the nation, to reinforce our EJ efforts and raise awareness about the discrepancies we see. These 10 communities will implement a range of approaches, providing crucial understandings of what efforts work best and under what circumstances. They will also bring together multiple partners to test and share information, and lead us towards real results. Ultimately, they will allow us to expand the conversation – to meet people where they are, and end the disproportionate burden placed on other communities across the nation.

Finally, we come to my fourth reason. This may well be the most important contribution of the brownfields program and all of our restoration efforts. It’s not something we can measure or calculate, or invest in – though it’s something that all of us have seen in our work on brownfields. My fourth reason is that brownfields cleanups give hope.

By making jobs and opportunities available…by giving a community a chance at a stronger future…or by reaching out to people who haven’t been engaged before – this program brings hope to places where it has been in short supply before. Struggling auto communities have hope that old industrial centers can be restored and bring jobs back to those communities. Inner city neighborhoods have hope that polluted lots can be transformed into parks or shops. People in communities across the nation have hope that revitalization is possible with the right investments and the right partnerships.

That hope – that evidence of the possibility for renewal – is more important here, in New Orleans, than in any other place in our country. It means that in a place where so many people have lost everything – in Pontchartrain Park or the Lower Ninth Ward – they still have hope for the days and years ahead.

Four years after Hurricane Katrina, rebuilding New Orleans has focused on making the city cleaner and more sustainable, and tapping the potential of a growing clean energy industry. People are building efficient homes, riding hybrid buses, installing solar panels and working in green-collar jobs. Many current and former residents – people like my mother – are passionate advocates for restoring the vital coastal wetlands lining the city. It is heartening to see that reconstruction is doing more than just building on top of the old. It’s strengthening the environmental and economic health of the community.

And through that effort, New Orleans gives hope to the rest of the country. When people see that this city – a city that has been through an unprecedented environmental disaster and an unavoidable national economic downturn – is able to rebuild…when they see that it can emerge stronger and better than before – not only with jobs and prosperity, but with a sense of community and possibility – it shines a light on the road ahead of us.

There is still a long, long way to go. That is clear. But the things we see here give me hope that we can give this city, this country, and the next generation a better future.

And I look forward to working with all of you to make that future possible. Thank you very much.