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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, As Prepared

09/29/2009
As prepared for delivery.

I'm glad to be with you in California. This has been quite a whirlwind trip, and won't be slowing down. Tomorrow, I'm going to be speaking at Governor Schwarzenegger's climate summit, where apparently I'm supposed to be introduced by Harrison Ford. I'm very excited about that of course.

If you had told me when I started at EPA -- which was back in 1987 -- that this was where I was going to end up, I'm not sure what would have surprised me more: that I would one day become Administrator of the EPA, or that as Administrator I would be working with Han Solo and the Terminator. I'm going to be the only one on stage without my own action figure.

It is a privilege to speak at the Commonwealth Club. This venue has hosted its share of notable moments. I remember well a few years ago your hosting a conversation on the so-called “The Death of Environmentalism.” I’m happy to report today that environmentalism is not, in fact, dead. It has been sick. But thanks to President Obama we’re going to be able to get it health care. And it’s a good thing, too.

Right now, our planet is facing a deteriorating atmosphere and a rapidly changing climate. Our country is entering a global race for clean energy, with fierce environmental and economic urgency. And our communities are awakening, having weathered years of federal inaction on air, water, and land.

At the same time, our awareness of environmental issues is broader than ever. Environmental issues are written up in the business pages now. Al Gore won a Nobel Peace prize for his work on climate change – not to mention an Academy Award. And states, from California to Texas to North Dakota to Indiana, lead the ubiquitous quest for green jobs. This is a long way from debates about spotted owls.

In response to the most significant economic downturn in generations, President Obama has made clear that the choice between our economy and our environment is a false choice. Through the Recovery Act, EPA is investing more than $7 billion in the creation of green jobs across the country. And those investments aren’t just about creating a job in the near term. By refurbishing water infrastructure or cleaning up a Brownfields development site, we’re making communities better places for businesses to invest and bring jobs, and rebuilding the foundation for prosperity that has made us a global economic leader for generations past.

To make sure we are the global economic leader in the future, the Recovery Act makes a strong down-payment on energy efficiency and clean energy. One paper wrote that, standing alone, those investments represented “the biggest energy bill in history.” As I said, that is just the down-payment. Getting America running on clean energy will create millions of jobs that can't be shipped overseas, cut carbon emissions, and keep billions of dollars here at home by reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

In many ways, the country has caught up with California. Two weeks ago we announced a clean car program that will keep more than 950 million tons of CO2 from the skies. That represents the first-ever national greenhouse gas emissions standards for vehicles. That program has origins here. I remember signing on to the states’ lawsuit as Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection in New Jersey back in 2007. Two years later, as EPA Administrator, I was proud to be able to bring the California waiver back from the dead – more Obama environmental health care.
Our challenge at EPA is to rise to this moment. We’ve hit the ground running on priority issues: first-ever national initiatives to confront climate change; restoring the rightful place of science as our cornerstone and rebuilding public trust in our work; revitalizing protections from toxic chemicals, smog, water pollution; and expanding the conversation on all of these issues, so that communities most affected by environmental degradation have a voice. If you wonder whether elections really matter, look no further than this agency. I believe that we have done more in the last eight months than was done in the last eight years.

And there’s plenty to come, which is part of what I want to talk about today. In my tenure as head of the EPA, I intend to focus on four key areas of special need: confronting climate change and getting America running on clean energy; protecting and cleaning up our air and water; updating our country’s regulations and laws on chemicals and toxics, and expanding the conversation on environmentalism. I want to talk about all these things today. And I want to make some news about one of them, which I will get to in a moment. But I want to do all that by taking some time to introduce myself.

Now, I have to admit to being a little uncomfortable about talking so much about me here. But please be patient with me. I need you to know who I am. Because my story is the story of the millions of environmentalists out there. I grew up in the 9th Ward of New Orleans, and started elementary school shortly after segregation ended. In college at Tulane, I majored in chemical engineering, and I planned to work for the oil companies. In New Orleans, that was a good job. But then the job market crashed in the early 80s as a result of OPEC.

I also found that, as I got older, I felt pulled to public service. That came from my father. My father worked for the Postal Service in New Orleans. He was, like me, a government employee. 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. He also took the postal service’s “rain, snow, or shine” idea seriously, and I can remember watching him leave the house in some of the worst weather. He was a trusted part of his community, and I’ve often thought about him as we work to rebuild confidence in our work at EPA. I used to tell my father that I wanted to work at the Post Office. Of course, I didn’t quite go that route. However, when my Dad worked for the Postal Service, his boss’s, boss’s, boss’s boss all the way up the line was the Post Master General. Today, EPA Headquarters are located in the building that was once the Post Office headquarters in Washington, DC. Every day, I come in and sit down at my desk in the same office where the Postmaster General used to sit. Every day, it reminds me of my dad. Every day, it reminds me that, like him, I serve a community, and play a role in people’s lives.

In recent years, 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 these first months. On my very first day I sent a memo to every EPA employee stating that our path would be set only by the best science and the rule of law, and that every action would be subject to unparalleled transparency. In the course of getting EPA back 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. Regrettably, nothing much changed – until we got into the building. We quickly set to work on the Bush-era document and submitted it as directed by the court. 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.

After Tulane, I got my Masters in chemical engineering from Princeton, and wrote my thesis on wastewater. That was right around the time of Love Canal – the neighborhood in New York where they found 20,000 tons of toxic waste illegally buried underneath people’s homes. I saw 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 still keep a letter in my desk from a Native American woman whose community was on top of a former Superfund site. She began to advocate for better cleanup when people in her neighborhood began getting sick. She got her community back on the national priorities list, and revitalized the cleanup effort. Today, I keep her letter as a stark reminder of what we can accomplish when we do our jobs, and what the consequences are when we don’t.

In those years at EPA, 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 Ward 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. By the way, that hurricane changed my mother too. She can now make as compelling an argument as any wetlands expert I’ve met about the need to protect and preserve wetlands. And watching that transformation has been an awakening for me – about how environmentalism grows. I saw an urgent need to broaden the conversation. That was a focus for me when I took the job as Commissioner at 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 rising above partisanship. If we’re slipping in the polls, we can’t ask climate change to wait. We can’t say that human health is next year’s issue. Historically, environmentalism has been a bipartisan issue. The National Environmental Protection Act and the Environmental Protection Agency all began under President Nixon. I started at the EPA under President Reagan. Today, I get as many letters and requests for urgent action from red states as I do from blue states. Just last week, the issue was people in a mining town in Treece, Kansas. Before that, water quality and mountaintop mining, or dairy farms in Wisconsin. I meet and collaborate with all kinds of people, all over the country, and from the full spectrum of political perspectives. They don’t all align the same way on every issue, and they don’t all take cues from their parties when it came to important environmental issues. Calling yourself an “environmentalist” is not a requirement for caring about your environment.

My perspective is also shaped by being a mother of two teenage sons. I know how environmental problems can affect a child and a family. My 12-year-old son Brian has fought with asthma his entire life. His first Christmas was spent in the hospital, unable to breathe. All his life we have had to be careful when it gets too hot outside, and the ozone levels rise, or when other environmental triggers are present. My family can’t take for granted that Brian’s going to be able to breathe easy. I still pop up at night when I hear him stirring, and expect to hear the cough. You see – a parent of a child with asthma or leukemia must care about the environment around them. In every action I take, I am acting not just as EPA Administrator but also as a mother. I never lose sight of the fact that protecting children’s health is EPA’s top priority. That means we take aggressive steps when we see areas where our kids are especially vulnerable. It also means that we won’t leave long-term challenges like climate change for the next generation to solve.

My experience as a parent affords me another important perspective as well: that of the active American consumer. The parents here will understand that the last thing I want to do is drive up the cost of the products we buy, or position the EPA, or the debate on climate change, as an obstacle to prosperity.

Right now, I want to talk about another issue that is central to everything from restoring public trust to protecting our children to growing our economy: understanding the risks posed by chemicals, and doing our utmost to make sure they are safe.

After World War II, the chemical industry in this country grew by leaps and bounds, earning the US an enviable reputation for innovation but also making chemicals pervasive in our lives. Everything from our cars, to the cell phones we all have in our pockets are constructed with plastics and chemical additives. The technological revolution that my two sons take for granted has done more than change the way we interact with each other – it’s made chemicals ubiquitous in our economy and products – as well as our environment and our bodies.

A child born in America today will grow up exposed to more chemicals than a child from any other generation in our history. A 2005 study found 287 different chemicals in the cord blood of 10 newborn babies – chemicals from pesticides, fast food packaging, coal and gasoline emissions, and trash incineration. They were found in children in their most vulnerable stage. Our kids are getting steady infusions of industrial chemicals before we even give them solid food. Now, some chemicals may be risk-free at the levels we are seeing. I repeat: some chemical may be risk-free. But as more and more chemicals are found in our bodies and the environment, the public is understandably anxious and confused. Many are turning to government for assurance that chemicals have been assessed using the best available science, and that unacceptable risks haven’t been ignored.

Right now, we are failing to get this job done. Our oversight of the 21st century chemical industry is based on the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. It was an important step forward at the time – part of a number of environmental wins from the 1970s, like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, not to mention the formation of the EPA. But over the years, not only has TSCA fallen behind the industry it’s supposed to regulate - it’s been proven an inadequate tool for providing the protection against chemical risks that the public rightfully expects.

Manufacturers of existing chemicals aren’t required to develop the data on toxicity and exposure needed to assess potential risks and demonstrate to EPA that chemicals meet risk-based safety standards. EPA has tools to require the industry to conduct testing, but they are cumbersome and time-consuming. As a result, there are troubling gaps in the available data on many widely used chemicals in commerce.

On new chemicals, companies have no legal obligation to develop new information, only to supply data that may already exist.

As with existing chemicals, the burden of proof falls on EPA. Manufacturers aren’t required to show that sufficient data exist to fully assess a chemical’s risks. If EPA has adequate data, and wants to protect the public against known risks, the law creates obstacles to quick and effective action. Since 1976, EPA has issued regulations to control only five existing chemicals determined to present an unreasonable risk. Five from a total universe of almost 80,000 existing chemicals. In 1989, after years of study, EPA issued rules phasing out most uses of asbestos, an exhaustively studied substance that has taken an enormous toll on the health of Americans. Yet, a court overturned EPA’s rules because it had failed to clear the many hurdles for action under TSCA.

Today, advances in toxicology and analytical chemistry are revealing new pathways of exposure. There are subtle and troubling effects of chemicals on hormone systems, human reproduction, intellectual development and cognition. Every few weeks, we read about new potential threats: Bisphenol A, or BPA – a chemical that can affect brain development and has been linked to obesity and cancer – is in baby bottles; phthalate esters – which have been said to affect reproductive development – are in our medical devices; we see lead in toys; dioxins in fish; and the list goes on. Many states – including California – have stepped in to address these threats because they see inaction at the national level.

Senator Lautenberg, Chairman Waxman, Senator Boxer, Congressman Rush and others in Congress have already recognized that TSCA must be updated and strengthened. EPA needs the tools to do the job the public expects. And we are working together with President Obama on this issue.

Today I’m announcing clear Administration principles to guide Congress in writing a new chemical risk management law that will fix the weaknesses in TSCA. Let me highlight some principles that are of overriding importance:

First, we need to review all chemicals against safety standards that are based solely on considerations of risk – not economics or other factors – and we must set these standards at levels that are protective of human health and the environment.

Second, safety standards cannot be applied without adequate information, and responsibility for providing that information should rest on industry. Manufacturers must develop and submit the hazard, use, and exposure data demonstrating that new and existing chemicals are safe. If industry doesn’t provide the information, EPA should have the tools to quickly and efficiently require testing, without the delays and procedural obstacles currently in place.

Third, both EPA and industry must include special consideration for exposures and effects on groups with higher vulnerabilities – particularly children. Children ingest chemicals at a higher ratio to their body weight than adults, and are more susceptible to long-term damage and developmental problems. Our new principles offer them much stronger protections.

Fourth, when chemicals fall short of the safety standard, EPA must have clear authority to take action. We need flexibility to consider a range of factors – but must also have the ability to move quickly. In all cases, EPA and chemical producers must act on priority chemicals in a timely manner, with firm deadlines to maintain accountability. This will not only assure prompt protection of health and the environment, but provide business with the certainly that it needs for planning and investment.

Fifth, we must encourage innovation in green chemistry, and support research, education, recognition, and other strategies that will lead us down the road to safer and more sustainable chemicals and processes. All of this must happen with the utmost transparency and concern for the public’s right to know.

Finally, we need to make sure that EPA’s safety assessments are properly resourced, with industry contributing its fair share of the costs of implementing new requirements.

I take great comfort that the call for change in our chemical management laws is rising from all quarters. A broad coalition of environmental advocates, unions, medical professionals and public health groups – including grass-roots organizations from across the country – has come together to make the case for stronger chemicals regulation.

Industry too, has called for action. Chemical producers are worried not only about facing an inconsistent patchwork of state laws, but believe that their industry can thrive only if the public is confident that their products meet rigorous safety standards. And they want the US to lead the world in chemical risk management, not fall further behind.

Many states – who have been on the leading edge of addressing chemical risks – have also echoed the call for reform. It’s not often that the chemical industry, states and the environmental community agree that the current system is not workable, and have similar visions of how the new system should be shaped. There are certainly differences of opinion and important details to be worked out. But the common ground that exists makes me optimistic that Congress can put a new law in place that has broad support from all the stakeholders.

EPA will do its part to make a new law a reality. Assuring chemical safety in a rapidly changing world, and restoring public confidence that EPA is protecting the American people is a top priority for me, my leadership team, and this Administration. This is one of several priority issues, all of which we will be tackling in the days ahead. I urge you to stay tuned.

This is a transformative moment for our country. We are likely to look back and see far-reaching changes on multiple fronts – 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.

We have an emerging global challenge, difficult but pressing issues at home, an energized President, the proficiency to tackle almost anything that comes our way, and a population that is tired of waiting for action. We have environmentalists – stop looking for the “crunchy” kind – environmentalists like me, my mom, my stepfather, my son’s asthma doctor and nurses, and citizens from all walks of life who want clean air, land and water.

Our towering challenges are dwarfed by some of the greatest opportunities we have ever seen to protect our health and our environment. I hope it’s clear to you that I – and all of my colleagues at EPA – fully intend to seize those opportunities.

And I hope you will join us in that work. Thank you for inviting me today.