Speeches By EPA Administrator
Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks upon receiving the Peter A.A. Berle Environmental Integrity Award, As Prepared12/16/2010
As prepared for delivery.
Thank you very much for this honor. It is wonderful to be here. It gives me great pride to accept this award. I do so on behalf of myself and all of my colleagues at EPA.
“Environmental Integrity” has played a pivotal role in my time at EPA. In the last 24 months, EPA has worked to rebuild the public’s trust in our agency. We have sought to reaffirm our core mission and values, and tried to show the American public that science, transparency and the law are paramount in protecting human health and the environment. In fact, the notion of integrity was one of the first things that came up in my confirmation hearings, before I took on this role in an official capacity.
As many of you know, I came to Washington from New Jersey. 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. Ringwood had been used for the disposal of lead-based paint sludge, an industrial by-product. Over the years, runoff 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. 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.
I told that story at the hearings – and I repeat it now – not to bring up any particular incidence of lapsed environmental integrity. The real point of the story is how it demonstrates that this agency can be a force for good if it does its job well – and what can go wrong if we fall short. And the surest way to fall short is to lose our integrity. In previous years, the American people had reasons to wonder whether that was happening.
They saw regulations being rejected by the courts. They saw what appeared to be interference in the scientific process by the political leadership. They saw incidents like the endangerment finding being sent to the White House, and the White House not bothering to open the email. Clearly, these are not things that inspire confidence in the EPA. As a scientist, it was hard to watch. As someone who had worked at the agency for most of my career – and, let me add, under the political leadership of Republicans and Democrats – it was a very difficult time. I felt it very deeply – and I’m sure many of you and our colleagues in the environmental movement did too. You might have agreed when the President of the Sierra Club declared the “death of environmentalism” In 2004. Fortunately, environmentalism wasn’t dead. But it was changing.
One of the reassuring things about that period was that the American people never abandoned their own environmental integrity. Whatever you might have felt was lacking in federal government action, the last 10 years witnessed a broad expansion of environmental awareness across the nation. Environmental issues started getting write-ups in the business pages. Al Gore won a Nobel Peace prize and an Academy Award for his work on climate change. States from California to Texas to North Dakota to Indiana took up the ubiquitous quest for green jobs. And hybrid cars started gaining in the market. When we walked in the door in January of 2009, it kind of felt like EPA had some catching-up to do. Because EPA depends on the trust of the American people, we made a clear commitment to follow the science, to follow the law and to provide an unprecedented level of transparency.
If we are to face the environmental challenges ahead of us, we cannot afford to look at our work as a victory for one side or the other. 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. If we rely on science and the law, we will make decisions on clean air and water that are based on human health. It will allow us to identify and articulate very clearly what we face and what we must do.
Finally, environmental integrity also clears the way for bipartisan, or nonpartisan, actions needed to protect people’s health. Clear science lets Democrats and Republicans and Independents – all groups that I’m sure are represented in this room – see their shared stake in these issues. It moves us towards shared solutions.
Some of them decided when they were eight or nine years old that they wanted to work at EPA. Some of them have incredible stories about why they came to EPA. Many of my colleagues experienced asthma as children, or like me, have a family member who fights this disease. My youngest son has asthma – and I’m grateful every day for EPA’s work to keep the air clean around our home, his school, our church and everywhere we go. One of my colleagues told me about how she learned to swim in Lake Michigan, and came back one summer to find a beach covered with dead fish. When that happened, she said, “On that beach I made a decision to devote my life to working for environmental protection.” She has been with EPA for 22 years. I also work with a young man whose mother was diagnosed with leukemia, part of a cancer cluster in her hometown. EPA helped clean up the pollution. He said that, “If I have been able to make a difference for at least one community in my time with the Agency, then I have succeeded at paying it forward for what EPA has done to help my mom.”
Let me make this point very clearly: Just as the American people maintained their environmental integrity throughout the last decade, so did the people of EPA. You have put my name on this award – but in truth I am just the person who has the opportunity to lead thousands of individuals who are working every day to preserve our environmental integrity. As the face of this agency, I owe it to EPA’s workers and the people we serve to follow their example.
We are going to face challenges in the years ahead. We will continue to follow the science, follow the law, and provide the transparency that guarantees our integrity. EPA has a very important job to do. It’s one we are proud of. And we approach it with the dedication and the humility it takes to ensure that we are doing the right thing. Thank you very much for this honor. I wish you and your families the best for the holidays.