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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to the 2010 National Tribal Operations Committee Meeting

07/14/2010
As prepared for delivery.

It is my honor to be back with the National Tribal Operations Committee to speak with you today. Last year at this gathering I had the privilege of reaffirming EPA’s Indian Policy. It was the beginning of a discussion about how EPA and tribes could make 2009 a year of renewed partnership. And I believe we succeeded.

In November President Obama hosted a Tribal Nations Conference at the White House. There, he announced that all Federal agencies must develop a plan of action to implement an Executive Order on “Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribal Governments.” Starting in January of this year, EPA began soliciting input from tribes in the process of developing a new and improved consultation policy, and we will continue to seek comments through the summer.

Last year we took steps through the Recovery Act to begin work on some of the long-standing environmental and economic challenges facing tribal communities. The tribes have done an extraordinary job putting Recovery Act funding into motion. Fully 100 percent of the money has been obligated to job-creating projects that will also improve the environment.

I was in Arizona earlier this year, where I saw projects in the works that will provide drinking water access for more than 6,700 tribal homes, and wastewater access to more than 5,600 tribal homes in the state of Arizona alone. These are just a few examples of how $90 million in Recovery Act funds for drinking water and wastewater services are being put to work in American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

Overall we’ve identified 95 wastewater and 64 drinking water priority projects that will serve more than 30,000 Native American homes. That funding came in addition to $68 million the IHS received in Recovery funds for sanitation facilities in Indian homes and communities. It also came in addition to the annual federal budget for drinking water and wastewater treatment.

Based on your suggestions, we have relocated the American Indian Environmental Office and created the Office of International and Tribal Affairs. That was a product of many discussions and a decision that will help us navigate the unique relationship we have with your sovereign tribal governments.

And last but certainly not least, the President’s proposed 2011 budget includes the most significant increase in 10 years to the Indian General Assistance Program. I suspect a few of my colleagues might have mentioned that already. Well, it bears repeating. At a time of deep economic challenges, that increase demonstrates the commitment we have to this partnership.

Of course, we are very happy about that. But I want to make clear that our success is about much more than just funding. It’s about building a partnership that makes the most of those resources.

That is something I learned even before coming to EPA, from my friends in the Ramapough Mountain Community in New Jersey. The Ramapough community is situated on top of the Ringwood Superfund site, an area that had been used for the disposal of lead-based paint sludge.

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, 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 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.

I also learned about building this partnership when I visited the Salt River Pima--Maricopa Tribe in Arizona. They showed me a completed Brownfields cleanup where a landfill has been restored for new development. They showed me an innovative landfill energy facility that is capturing methane energy from solid waste. They even took me to see a rare bald eagle’s nest. But on that same tour they also showed me an area where more than 2,000 tribal members have water that doesn’t meet EPA standards for arsenic. We passed illegal dump sites that exposed the people to dangerous toxins and stood square in the way of economic growth.

This partnership is about the Alaskan natives and tribes, for whom climate change is not a far-away problem. The tribes that today are dealing with the loss of fish habitats in rivers and streams, or eroding shorelines. It’s about the tribes near where I come from in Louisiana, where almost 40 miles of wetlands along the coast disappear every year. Even before the BP oil spill, those families were finding it harder to catch the fish, shrimp and shellfish that fortify their economy. The young people of the tribes are moving away and the entire community is talking about relocating from the place they’ve called home for centuries. These and other tribal communities along the Gulf Coast are now facing the worst environmental disaster in our country’s history. This partnership is about helping them as well. We want to work together not just through the Recovery Act and the budgeting process, but in the times like these, when we are needed the most. We are going to need strong ties for the ongoing response effort that is happening right now, and for the long-term rebuilding process that we will be a part of for years to come.

I have, of course, been thinking quite a bit about my old hometown New Orleans. As I was preparing to come here I began thinking about the Mardi Gras Indians. Now – let me be clear that I realize this is not authentic Native American culture. The Mardi Gras Indians are typically African-Americans. They often come from the poorest parts of the community, and they create elaborate, ornate and truly beautiful costumes based on Indian dress. The good ones make them by hand. I can remember seeing them when I was young and thinking how incredible it was. I bring it up today because the history is intriguing.

The tradition of paying tribute to Native Americans originates from the days when the Indian communities in and around New Orleans sheltered escaped black slaves. Hundreds of years later, out of that shared struggle and that coming together in community, there grew this ceremony of appreciation and beauty.

Today, of course, the scope and depth of our challenges is different. And the people we share those challenges with are the neighbors on our streets and the people from nations halfway around the planet. But the goals are the same: Partnership. Community. And a legacy that teaches us to share and celebrate beautiful things.

We have to give our partnership shape through the channels of our governments. And that is the hard part. That is why we are meeting with you today, and why we will stay engaged throughout our time here. I look forward to working with you. Thank you very much.