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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the Columbia University Center for Children’s Environmental Health, As Prepared

03/30/2009
As prepared for delivery.

Let me begin by saying that I come to you as both the Administrator of the EPA and as a parent.

I have two young boys and, first and foremost, I count myself as a mother. I want to thank all of you for your tireless dedication to protecting the health of children.

I’m pleased that we have the opportunity to meet so early into my time at EPA. I hope it underscores for you the importance I place on these issues.

It’s also significant that we are here, in the middle of the city, to talk about environmental protection.

When we talk about the environment or environmentalism, it typically brings to mind sweeping vistas, wide-open landscapes and pristine beaches.

What doesn’t usually come to mind is an apartment building. A city block. Playgrounds and parking lots.

But that perception only tells part of the story. You know very well that our cities and urban communities are home to some of the most significant human health and environmental concerns we have.

That’s because environmental protection is about human protection. It’s about family protection and community protection.

It’s about safeguarding people in the places where they live, work, play, and learn.

In that work, we are committed to meeting people where they are.

You don’t have to label yourselves as “environmentalists.”

I don’t believe that all of you here spend your days thinking about wilderness preservation, or sit up nights worrying about climate change.

But we’ve all come to the conclusion that children’s health is worth fighting for.

Maybe you’re a parent or a grandparent worried about your loved ones.

Or maybe you’ve noticed that the kids in your neighborhood can’t go outside and play in the summer because it’s too dangerous to breathe the air.

Maybe the work of our friends in the environmental justice movement – people like WE ACT – have gotten through to you.

You understand that the children who get sick at two and three times the average rate because their air and water are dirty are often the same kids who get their medical care in the emergency room.

That drives up health care costs for everyone, not to mention the strain it puts on working mothers and fathers who have to miss work to care for their children.

Whatever your reasons, we share the common ground of children’s health protection.

EPA is committed to meeting you where you are, and working with you on the issues that we share.

There are too many important issues where we can’t wait for a quorum of the American people to decide that they are environmentalists before we take action.

Children’s health is certainly one of those issues. Ensuring that our children are not exposed to toxins and pollution or other environmental threats in their homes, in their schools, or anywhere else is central to our work at EPA.

Children’s health was one of the top agenda items I laid out in my very first memo, which I sent to all EPA employees in order to establish the priorities of this administration.

It was reinforced by First Lady Michelle Obama when she visited EPA last month and spoke to the entire staff.

She charged all of us with this responsibility, saying that “the health and safety of our children is our top priority.”

Children’s health was also the driving force behind one of our very first initiatives – the effort to monitor dangerous particulates around schools.

When USA Today published their story, parents all across the nation read about the dangerous air around our schools.

They read how children absorb toxic pollutants in the same quantities as adults – meaning they ingest a much higher dose of toxics for their body weight.

They read about how children are more vulnerable to asthma and other respiratory illnesses – and more susceptible to long-term complications that will affect them throughout their lives.

Then, they sent their kids to school, wondering if they were putting them in harm’s way.

In response to those concerns, EPA has a fundamental obligation to step in.

We will be working with state, tribal and local officials to determine which schools are exposed to high levels of toxic air pollution – with a strong focus on schools located near large industries and in urban areas.

That will begin at some schools in the coming weeks. Results will be available to the public as quickly as we can provide them, so that the many concerned parents can get critical information they deserve, and so that we can all take action where it is required.

That is just the beginning.

We have important obligations to look ahead and be proactive about preventing and, where necessary, mitigating the particular effects climate change will have on children’s health and welfare.

We need to step up our efforts to assess and manage chemical risks that are particularly harmful to children.

As this center has shown, prenatal and early life exposures can have tragic, life-long effects and we must be diligent in preventing any possible dangers.

Something else I am particularly concerned about is eliminating disparities in environmental health and safety for minorities and low-income populations.

You all have led the way on this, and I’m asking for you to keep pushing. We need your help to elevate this issue to the mainstream, so that we can create a sustainable and healthy environment for children and adults in every single community.

These and many other issues like energy efficiency, public transportation, walkable neighborhoods, air quality, water quality, and hazardous waste – will all be important to children’s health protection.

I’m proud to announce some great news in our children’s health work. Starting today, we have new member on our team: Peter Gravett, who will be serving as our Senior Adviser for Children’s Environmental Health.

Peter brings to the position a wealth of scientific, risk assessment, environmental justice and children’s health experience.

He has worked on asbestos, PCBs, lead and arsenic cleanup and protection, and brings extensive interagency leadership experience. One of the important efforts Peter led was the interagency agreement establishing a scientific basis for protecting children’s health at the Vasques Boulevard 1-70 arsenic-contaminated site in Denver.

You’ll also be glad to know, Peter is familiar with this area. He’s the co-author of the Region 2 policy on environmental justice, and he spearheaded the development of a study on the administration of the Superfund program in environmental justice areas in Region 2.

More recently, he has worked closely with Regions and States on RCRA implementation, and provided health risk assessments and economic cost-benefit analyses on major rulemakings.

We’re more than happy to have him on board and I hope you all have a chance to work with him very soon.

Now, given Peter’s background in science, I think I can speak for him in praising the theme of this meeting: “Translating science into policy.”

I know it makes me happy. Not just because I am a scientist myself. But because I have been working to communicate that science must once again be the determining factor in EPA decision making.

If we go back to science, we will make decisions on clean air and water that are based on human health. It will lead us to places where we can identify and articulate very clearly what it is we face and what we must do.

In just the last month, we have begun the arduous processes of re-examining previous decisions made at the agency – largely because of questions raised about whether science was trumped by politics.

Whenever that happens, it may be a momentary victory for one side or the other, but 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.

And it requires that we use our time and resources to look back when we absolutely need to be moving ahead.

A second guiding principle is the rule of law.

The lawsuits that follow EPA are inevitable. But there have been some important times when lawsuits have crystallized what we need to remember every day at EPA.

And that is that the laws are in place because Congress decided and the people determined that action was needed.

If we don’t uphold those laws then we have let the system down – but more importantly, we are affecting people’s health.

When we don’t win a court case on particulate matters or ozone, it’s sad for the lawyers involved, but it’s extraordinarily tragic for human health.

Lastly, we must operate with unparalleled transparency. Transparency will aid us in making sure that science and the law come first.

And it will send a very clear signal to the American people that we work for them. I want everyone to know who I am meeting with and what I’m talking about.

It’s extraordinarily important that people believe that they can get inside the walls of the EPA and that it is not governed by any one interest or industry.

Right now, we have greater opportunities to protect public health and the environment than any other time in the history of the EPA.

We’ve moved beyond the false choice between having a green economy or having a green environment. And we have risen above many of the past divides that often slowed down environmental protection and set us back years.

Today in the congress and throughout the nation, there is tremendous, bi-partisan support for green jobs, smart growth, clean energy, and the long list of ideas and innovations that will grow the economy and improve our planet.

And we have the great support of people like you.

So, when I’ve spoken to reporters, industry leaders, community members, or other stakeholders, I’ve tried to send a very clear, consistent message. It’s the message that I’m here to give you, and I hope you will join with me in carrying it to everyone you work with.

That message is that the EPA is back on the job.

I’m asking you to keep doing exactly what you are doing.

Continue to gather the best science. Then use that information to organize and engage the people in your communities.

Talk to parents about why this matters. Show someone that – whether they count themselves as an environmentalist or not – clean air and water affects them and the people around them.

Educate young people so that they can carry the torch for the next generation.

I look forward to working with all of you to improve children’s health and the environment in this and every community.

Thank you very much.