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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the Capitol Hill Summit on Sustainable Communities, As Prepared

10/16/2009
As prepared for delivery.

I thank all of you for coming to Washington, DC to share your thoughts – especially those among you who have traveled a long way to be here. I’m glad you’ve come here today, to meet us where we are. But what I want to talk about is how those of us here in Washington can do more to meet people where they are.

We all share a common goal: to broaden the conversation on environmentalism – including things like sustainability and green jobs – so that conversation reaches communities that have a stake in these issues, but very little voice. I’ve worked in environmental protection for two decades, and I’ve seen the consequences of this again and again. The most profound example is one that touched my own life. I grew up in the 9th Ward of New Orleans, and my mother was still living there when Hurricane Katrina hit. I just 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. Today, my mother can make as compelling an argument as any wetlands expert I’ve met about the need to protect and preserve wetlands. Watching her transformation has been an awakening for me – about how environmentalism grows.

I saw then – as I see now – an urgent need to broaden the conversation.

I saw that we need to meet people where they are, and talk to them about these issues in a way that they can understand, and respond to.

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.

As the first African-American to lead the EPA, under the first African-American President, I feel a special obligation to change the way we talk about these issues.

And we have begun the process of changing the face of environmentalism – a change I’ve seen taking shape in measures big and small.

Not long ago I was at the White House with a coalition of groups for an effort called Green the Block. I was honored to be there with Dr. Dorothy Height, the last living person to stand on stage with Dr. King at the March on Washington.

I was struck by how she continues to play such a pivotal role in the great march forward. Even after all these years, she is still working to ensure equality and opportunity for everyone.

This particular forum was dedicated to putting green jobs into inner city communities, based on the idea that putting environmental green on the block helps put more economic green on the block.

And it was happening a few hundred feet from the Oval Office.

In another case, I visited West Philadelphia High School where a group of students is working to build an innovative hybrid car.

The vast majority of students at West Philly – almost 100 percent – are black. Many of them come from disadvantaged, under served neighborhoods.

The hybrid car they’re building has outperformed models built by university teams and private companies.

These high school students from the inner city are taking their car to compete against other hybrid vehicles from around the world in the Progressive Automotive X Prize competition. The top prize there is $10 million.

This is all great news. But it is just the beginning.

One challenge is in making environmental issues real to people who haven’t traditionally been part of this discussion.

Typically, talking about environmentalism brings to mind sweeping vistas and wide-open landscapes.

What doesn’t usually come to mind is an apartment building. A city block. Or a school playground.

Or, for that matter, an inner-city kid who has trouble breathing on hot days. Or a minority business owner whose employees are getting sick.

It’s difficult to make a pitch for “sustainable communities” to people who live in a place that needs schools…that needs health care…where jobs are few and far between…and where crime is a fact of life.

But in fact, all of those things are connected to environmentalism.

We can talk about our crumbling schools and how we need to rebuild them so our children can learn. But that conversation must also include where we build these schools.

We have to ensure we’re not building them in the shadow of polluters that will make our kids sick, that make them miss day after day of class with asthma or other health problems.

We can talk about health care, but we also have to talk about how the poor – who get sick at 2 and 3 times the average rates because they live in neighborhoods where the air and water are polluted – are the same people who go to the emergency room for treatment. That drives up health care costs for everyone. It hurts the local and the national economy.

We can talk about the need for more jobs and small businesses in our urban centers and metropolitan regions. But that conversation must also include the understanding that environmental challenges in our neighborhoods hold back economic growth.

Poison in the ground means poison in the economy. A weak environment means a weak consumer base. And unhealthy air means an unhealthy atmosphere for investments.

And when businesses won’t invest, economic possibilities are limited. As a result crime is higher, violence is higher – often times drugs use is rampant – and the vicious cycle continues.

So we can talk about crime too. What have we taught young people (like my two teenaged sons) to value, to aspire to, or take pride in when they see that their communities are unclean, unhealthy and unsafe – and that the people around them are unconcerned?

We know there is a much better way.

Not long ago I visited a sustainable community in Denver, one that has put Smart Growth into practice for more than a decade.

The homes are only a short walk from the grocery store, the gym, the post office, the hardware store, or any one of a dozen restaurants.

Residents can hop on a bus or ride a bike and get downtown in minutes, and their kids walk to school. Transportation choices cut fuel consumption and keep harmful pollution out of the air.

They’re also using innovation and conservation, to make the most out of all their energy sources.

One of their markets has been certified as LEED Gold – one of the highest sustainability ratings for green buildings. Solar awnings on a fitness center help power the street lights.

And energy-efficiency keeps prices down. One resident said that his monthly utility bill for a 1,600 foot townhouse unit has yet to exceed $80. Even in the coldest months of the Denver winter.

I also learned that, in recent years, as the rest of the country felt the effects of the worst economic downturn in generations, this Smart Growth community continued to grow.

It has added new business in the last two years – some of the worst years we’ve had in recent memory.

That is why it’s my mission at EPA to broaden this conversation – so that we can build these thriving, sustainable communities in the places where they are needed the most.

We need every voice calling for cleaner land, air, and water.

We need every voice to ensure that children’s health is protected, and that the green and clean energy jobs are being created in every community.

And we need every voice to join in the fierce urgency of confronting climate change.

We need to make sure that those young people in West Philadelphia have a chance to make the most of what they’ve learned.

And we need to keep working to expand opportunity and equality as part of this movement.

EPA will continue to communicate these messages. We will keep working to go out and meet people where they are.

I’m happy to have your partnership and your leadership in this effort. Thank you very much.