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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the Tulane University Dean’s Colloquium, As Prepared

11/18/2009
View photos from Administrator Jackson's trip to New Orleans, LA.

As prepared for delivery.

Thank you all for being here today. It is wonderful to be back in my old hometown. This is actually my last stop on this trip – I’m off to the airport from here. I’m thrilled that I get to close out my first official visit to New Orleans with my fellow members of the Green Wave.

This has been an extraordinary couple of days, filled with official business and lots of memories. This morning I stopped by my old high school, St. Mary’s Dominican. I also went through Pontchartrain Park and saw the place where I grew up. It makes me realize just how much has changed between the time when I was sitting where you are, and where I am today.

I recently went to California to speak at the Governors’ Climate Summit. Of course, our host was Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. And another speaker on stage was Harrison Ford. Today, these are two leaders in our fight for a cleaner environment. But when I was your age – back here at Tulane – they were The Terminator and Han Solo. I was worried that I was going to be the only one on stage without my own action figure. So believe me: things have changed.

Today I want to talk about some of the things that led me here, and how they are informing my work to lead the EPA, and then I hope we can have a conversation about what some of those things mean to you.

I grew up not far from here in the 9th Ward. I started elementary school shortly after segregation ended. My father worked for the Postal Service here in New Orleans. He was, like me, a government employee. And he was, like me, someone working to support a family. But he was also – like I strive to be – a person on the front line serving his community. My father knew the people on his route. He used to ring the bell when your Social Security check came in, just to make sure it got in your hands. It inspires me that he was a trusted part of our community. I’ve often thought about him as we try to rebuild confidence in our work at EPA.

In years past, many Americans have had cause to wonder whether decisions made at EPA were guided by science and the law, or whether those principles had been trumped by politics. We have had to respond to that skepticism in our first year on the job. We’ve reviewed decisions like the California waiver refusal and the endangerment finding. The endangerment finding was prompted by the Supreme Court in 2007. That decision – perhaps the most important decision ever handed down in environmental law – prompted EPA to determine if greenhouse gases pose a threat to the health of Americans, and – if so – obligated us to regulate them under the Clean Air Act. The court’s verdict sent a clear message: there are no more excuses for delay.

But, in an example that may go down as one of the great “black eyes” of environmental history, when the first endangerment finding was sent to the Bush White House two years ago, they simply refused to open the email. And for two years, nothing much changed – until we got into the building. We quickly set to work on the document and submitted it as directed by the court. And we opened it up to the public. We have received more than 400,000 responses in the 60-day public comment period. And I can assure you that we have opened all the emails.

So – I came to Tulane to be pre-med. I graduated from St. Mary’s Dominican and decided to stay in New Orleans and study to become a doctor. But I found myself pulled in a different direction. I think because of my father’s work, I was drawn to public service. And I eventually settled into chemical engineering. I did a lot of study on water quality, which as you know is a huge part of people’s lives. You can’t grow up here where the water is such a part of the culture and the economy and miss out on what it means to keep that water safe and clean. My mother always asked me why I became an environmentalist. You know – she sent me to school to be a doctor. But she stopped asking once President Obama called.

After Tulane, I got my Masters from Princeton, and wrote my thesis on wastewater. That was right around the time of the Love Canal incident. Love Canal – since all of you are too young to have been around at the time – was a neighborhood in New York. They found 20,000 tons of toxic waste illegally buried underneath people’s homes. I saw all this news about communities suffering from environmental challenges – and stepping in to help those communities was the EPA. It’s no accident that my first EPA job was in the Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program.

For the next 15 years, I worked with EPA – on the ground, with those communities and the people in them. I moved from Washington, DC up to the Region 2 office in New York. I saw how federal action took shape under three Presidents and six administrators. And I watched as the issues evolved. In 2002 I joined the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. And in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit.

My mother was still living in the 9th when the storm came. I happened to be visiting for her birthday, and ended up driving her to safety. Like so many others, my mother lost everything she had. In the face of that tragedy, I almost left public service. I was disheartened by the lack of preparation; by the lack of protection; and by a delayed response that cost people their lives. But there was something that drew me back.

After Katrina, we learned that the devastation and flooding were so bad because marshes and wetlands – the area’s natural defenses – had been destabilized and cut away for oil and gas lines. That changed my mother. And today she can make as compelling an argument as any wetlands expert I’ve met about the need to protect and preserve wetlands. Watching that transformation has been an awakening for me – about how environmentalism grows.

I saw an urgent need to broaden the conversation we have on environmentalism, and reach out to people who may not think of themselves as quote-unquote “environmentalists.” That was a focus for me when I took the job as Commissioner at the New Jersey DEP the next year. It was an issue I raised when President-elect Obama appointed me to his transition team last year. And it’s a priority now.

As the first African-American to lead the EPA, under the first African-American President, I feel a special obligation to change the face of environmentalism. African Americans die from asthma twice as often as whites, and have higher cancer mortality rates than any other group. Nearly 30 million Latinos – 72 percent of the US Latino population – live in places that don’t meet US air pollution standards. Native American homes lack clean water at almost 10 times the national rate. Yet, these are not the voices driving the environmental debate in our country. We have begun the process of changing the face of environmentalism, but we have to continue to make room for new and different kinds of environmentalists.

That also includes environmentalists like you – young people. Your generation has claimed the mantle of leadership in our country. The world is trying to get your attention, and watching to see what you’re going to decide next. Earlier this year I went on the Daily Show because I knew that young people like you would be watching. And I think I have the distinction of being the first EPA Administrator with a Facebook page because we want to engage with young people. When I finished graduate school there was only one place for young people who were talented, smart, and passionate about protecting the environment – and that was EPA. I want us to return to that. I want to make sure we are recruiting the best, the brightest, and most diverse EPA ever. So I urge you to come on down. And keep in mind, I love Tulane. I’m biased.

Let me just close on that point. This is a defining moment for our country. Which means that it is a defining moment for you. We are likely to look back and see far-reaching changes starting here – from our financial system to health care to our role as a world leader. For our environment, this is a time unlike any I have seen in two decades of work on these issues.

As someone at this school and in this city – you have a special role to play as all of these changes roll ahead. New Orleans has suffered through an unprecedented environmental disaster, and an unavoidable national economic downturn. Once the floods were gone, my mother went down to our old home. She sat on the sidewalk, in her wheelchair, and watched as they took everything item away – every picture, all of her clothes, every piece of furniture. Everything. And she was one of the lucky ones. She got out before the storm hit. She was not trapped on her roof or in the Superdome. She feels blessed not to have lost her life, or lost someone close to her. My mother’s story is one of thousands that have been told over the years about the tragedy that hit this community.

But today the stories are starting to change. More and more, they are stories of rebuilding, renewal and revitalization. As Tulane students, your stories are going to be among the new stories that are told. Regardless of whether you grew up in NOLA or came here for school, by being in this place at this time of rebuilding, your achievements and accomplishments mean something more.

When people see that this city is able to get on its feet again; when they see that it can emerge stronger and better – not only with jobs and prosperity, but with a sense of community and possibility; when they see that the school at the heart of New Orleans is turning out a new generation of leaders and innovators – 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 that are happening here, and the presence of so many talented young people give me hope that we can deliver for this city, for this country, and for your generation in this defining moment. Thank you very much.