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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to the National Council of Churches Centennial Gathering, As Prepared

11/09/2010
As prepared for delivery.

Thank you to the Church World Service for co-sponsoring this event with the National Council of Churches. Thank you all for offering me this opportunity to speak with you. It is wonderful to be back in New Orleans – the city that nurtured me, the community where I developed my faith, where I received my education, and where I learned to love the environment. This is a place I still think of as home. And usually when I speak to groups that have come here, I like to say a few words of welcome. In this case, however, the National Council of Churches is already very familiar with New Orleans. Since Hurricane Katrina and throughout the BP spill, many of you and many members of your congregations, have traveled here and spent countless hours in the communities. You have strengthened this city in its time of need with both material and spiritual support. And you have played an invaluable role in the rebuilding that continues to this day. So – since it’s not necessary to welcome you, let me just say “thank you.” I’m happy for this chance to express my deepest gratitude – on behalf of EPA, on behalf of this community and on behalf of myself.

My mother was still living here when Katrina hit. I happened to be in town celebrating her birthday and ended up driving her to safety. But her home – the house I grew up in – was destroyed by flooding. She lost everything she had. From that experience, I can tell you: your service has provided the answer to many prayers. Thank you for all the good things you have done for the people here. And thank you for returning once again and bringing your spirit and your enthusiasm and your joy to this city.

It is truly an honor to join you in celebrating 100 years of service by the National Council of Churches. I’m glad to be with you, even if it is daunting to stand up here and speak before an audience full of preachers. On the subject of milestones, some of you probably know that the EPA is also celebrating an anniversary this year – 40 years of environmental protection. Since 1970 EPA has worked to safeguard the air we breathe, the water that flows through our communities and into our homes, and the land where we build those homes, where we put up schools, businesses and churches. And while we haven’t been around for quite as long as the NCC, we do have a lot to show for our work.

Forty years ago, our communities had few mechanisms to protect our water. When the pollution in the Cuyahoga River caused it to literally catch fire, it was a national story. Not because it was an extraordinary, outlier event – but because it was a reminder of the hazards of polluted water flowing through communities across the country. Today, 92 percent of Americans have access to water that meets national health standards. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio is one of many waterbodies that are cleaner than they have been in generations. When you get a glass of water from the faucet, EPA makes sure that it is clean and healthy.

This is the same storyline when it comes to pollution in the air we breathe. In 1970, soot and smog in the air was visible in many cities. Something as simple as starting your car meant sending harmful lead emissions into the air. Today, dangerous pollution in the air we breathe is down by more than half. Lead alone has been cut by more than 90 percent from a generation ago. Each year since 1990 the Clean Air Act has removed an average of 1.7 million tons of pollution from our skies. That progress on cleaner air has prevented more than 200,000 premature deaths – literally saving people’s lives. It has helped us avoid 672,000 cases of chronic bronchitis and 21,000 cases of heart disease, stopped 843,000 asthma attacks and spared 18 million children from respiratory illnesses.

To clean up the land where we build our communities, EPA’s Superfund program has removed dangerous toxins from some of the most polluted sites in the country. At the same time, thousands of other sites have been remediated through the Brownfields program – which removes contaminants so that sites can be re-used for economic growth and beneficial development. These two programs have provided thousands of jobs to American workers – which brings me to another important point about our 40 year history. We have been able to achieve these improvements at the same time our nation reached new levels of prosperity.

In the 40 years that we have been improving our environmental protections, our GDP has grown 207 percent. Environmental regulations have sparked cutting-edge innovations; they have provided the American people with some $22 trillion in health benefits; and by cleaning up the air, water and land, we have given our communities the foundations they need for success. In short, we’ve learned that the engines of opportunity and prosperity in this country run better when they run clean.

That is our 40 year legacy of healthier families, cleaner communities and a stronger America. So – where do these things come together? Where do EPA and the NCC overlap? And why is it so important that we focus on those overlaps and do even more work together in the years ahead?

First, there is an overlap in our timelines. It was in the 1960s – with landmark events like the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the Cuyahoga River fire and the Santa Barbara oil spill – that the environmental movement began to gain widespread support. The challenges issued in that growing movement were not limited to government and businesses. They also came to our churches. In 1966 the widely read essay, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” laid the blame for our many ecological problems at the feet of the Christian faith. The writer argued that, by sanctioning humanity’s dominance over the Earth, Christianity set the stage for the environmental destruction of the modern industrial age. The reaction to that essay compelled many of the already developing ecological movements within the church to pick up speed. Since that time, there has been considerable progress to build on the religious and moral reasons for being good stewards of our environment. Alongside the broader environmental movement was the “creation care” that many people of faith practice today.

Against the charges that religion was to blame for the Earth’s destruction, religious environmentalists argued that “dominion” over “all the earth” implied not ownership of God’s creation, but a fundamental responsibility for stewardship.

Today many people of faith take inspiration from the scripture. For example, the praise of God’s creation in the Psalms. In the same way, environmentalists write and speak with deep reverence and celebration of the natural world. When Rachel Carson said that “Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction,” she was expressing a belief that would ring true in any sanctuary. The gospels says that “Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed” like the lilies of the field. In much the same spirit, environmental design guru William McDonough – a man who has created buildings for Fortune 500 companies, discussed design at the White House, and led the field of green design – is awed by the idea of a tree. He says, “Imagine this design assignment: Design something that makes oxygen…sequesters carbon…fixes nitrogen…distills water…accrues solar energy as fuel…makes complex sugars in food…creates micro-climates…changes color with the seasons…and self-replicates.” He further reinforces the need for humility by pointing out that it took human beings 5,000 years to put wheels on our luggage.

Another overlap is in the pursuit of environmental justice. The effort to help communities that are overburdened by environmental and economic challenges is surely consistent with calls “to help the least of these.” Dr Dorothy Height – who marched with Dr. King on Washington – said before she passed away that if Dr. King was alive he would be marching today for clean air and clean water and clean communities for every person. That’s because environmental challenges have the power to deny equality of opportunity and hold back progress. It has become clearer and clearer over the years that environmental threats limit the economic possibilities of struggling communities. They make it harder to break free from the cycles of poverty. The NCC has done extraordinary work over the years to relieve the burdens of poverty and fight against inequality in our society. I’m happy to see that emphasis expanding into issues of environmental justice.

One last area of overlap is perhaps the most obvious and the most urgent. It is the fact that we all share one planet. For the first time in human history we have reached a point where our everyday activities – our travel, our commerce, our agriculture – are affecting the fate of the planet. Environmentalists are deeply concerned about the rapidly changing climate and what the consequences will be for humans and the natural world. For people of faith, this is something that emphasizes the unity of all humankind. A change in the careful balances of creation will have impacts on every continent, affecting communities from Indonesia to Indiana. It brings us together into what many faiths call God’s family. It ties us all into a community that we must make into a beloved community if we hope to save it. It moves the work on climate change and protecting our planet beyond the environmental or economic imperatives, and shows us that it is a moral obligation.

The question now is, “What we can do?” As EPA and the NCC hit these milestones and celebrate the past, it is also essential that we consider the future. It is a future where we must strengthen our collaboration on critical environmental issues: cleaning up our air, land and water, fighting for environmental justice to relieve the burdens of pollution in poor and minority communities, protecting the planet we all call home and safeguarding the creation that has been given to us to steward. EPA will continue to expand our work with congregations through the Energy Star program. We will continue to seek the input of faith communities in the decisions we make. And we also plan to align our efforts with the Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership through the White House. You have spoken to the President, and I invite you to share your thoughts with me and my team as well.

We have seen how much good you can do through your work here in New Orleans. I ask that you bring that same enthusiasm, creativity and spirit to working on all of the issues we face together. That is the race that is set before us. I look forward to running it with you. Thank you very much.