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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to the Local Government Advisory Committee, As Prepared

11/18/2010
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As prepared for delivery.

Good Morning, Madame Chair, and all the Members of the Local Government Advisory Committee. Thank you to Mayor Heather McTeer Hudson for agreeing to serve as chair of this committee. And a special thank you to Mr. Prescott for the leadership you have shown in over a decade of service on the LGAC. Thank you also to each and every one of you for accepting the call to serve on this committee. It’s a pleasure to be able to work with the top local leaders in this country.

As you may know, you have joined us as we commemorate EPA’s 40th anniversary. For 40 years, this agency has worked to protect the air we breathe, to safeguard the water that flows through our communities and into our homes and to care for the land where we build homes, schools and businesses. That has had an impact on communities like yours across the nation – communities whose health and well-being have been strengthened by a healthy environment. Places where EPA has played a unique role in building the foundations for lasting prosperity.

Take, for instance, water protection. The first federal water pollution law – the Rivers and Harbors Act – was passed in 1899. State, local and federal authorities were fighting to protect water quality since the industrial revolution. Yet, without an agency focused on the health and welfare of our people, our waters were treated like dumping grounds. Municipal and households wastes flowed untreated into rivers, lakes and streams. The Potomac River was covered in green sludge and filled with unprocessed sewage. In the Great Lakes, Lake Erie had been declared dead because green algae decimated the ecosystem. At the same time – harmful chemicals flowed into our waters from factories, chemical manufacturers, power plants and other facilities. The year before EPA was created the Cuyahoga River was so fouled with industrial pollution and oil slicks that it literally caught fire. It became national news – not because it was an extraordinary event – but because it was a reminder of the hazards of polluted water flowing through communities across the country.

Forty years later, communities throughout America have safe, clean water. Today, 92 percent of Americans are receiving water that meets national health standards. The Cuyahoga is cleaner than it’s been in generations; Lake Erie has been revitalized, as have thousands of waterbodies in America. What that really means is that when you walk to the sink and pour a glass of water, you can be confident it is free of pollution. When you go on vacation next summer, you will be able to find beaches that are open and safe for swimming. For those of you struggling to maintain systems that are over-worked and under-budgeted, those of you seeking to modernize your infrastructure and meet safe drinking water standards and those of you facing increased demand for clean water while supplies taper off or disappear in droughts – it means you have a source for technical assistance and the benefit of EPA’s forty years of experience.

There is a similar story to tell about the air we breathe. 2010 also marks the 40th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, a piece of legislation that has been incredibly successful in removing health threats from our everyday environment. There was a time when Los Angeles was known as the smog capital of the world, when even the simple act of driving 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 is down 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. Cleaner air has prevented more than 200,000 premature deaths and spared 18 million children from respiratory illnesses. And the total benefits of the Clean Air Act amount to more than 40 times the costs of regulation. For every one dollar we have spent, we get more than $40 of benefits in return.

What that really means is that anyone who breathes has benefitted from EPA’s work over the last 40 years. When the kids in your communities get on the school bus, they are not exposed to lead pollution that could cause lasting damage to their health. It means that the Clean Air Act is one of the most cost-effective things the American people have done for themselves in the last half century.

The last 40 years have also seen better protections for our communities, in both the cleanup and the regulation of harmful chemicals. We’ve come a long way from the days when apples were sold with a residue of arsenic – a once commonly used pesticide. We’ve played an integral role in preventing the spread of harmful substances like asbestos and improved the science and the access to information on chemicals in our communities. Today, nearly every major metropolitan area in the U.S. has at least one Superfund site where years of harmful and costly pollution are being confronted, reducing health threats and increasing economic possibilities. Along with Superfund, EPA’s Brownfields program has initiated cleanups that allow formerly-contaminated sites to be re-used for economic growth and beneficial development. For sites and facilities that remain active, EPA requires monitoring of emissions and public reporting through the Toxics Release Inventory. What that means is that in the last 40 years, thousands of families have been protected from harmful pollutants in their communities – and thousands of Americans have been put to work cleaning up the places where we live and work. And today every American can go online and find out what the factories and facilities in their communities are emitting.

Let me also note that in the last 40 years, our nation’s GDP has grown 207 percent. Despite the rhetoric about the costs of regulation, we have learned that the engines of opportunity and prosperity run better when they run clean. You all know better than most that environmental challenges present economic entry barriers. Potential investors, new business and homebuyers, and tourist dollars are turned away when pollution is an issue. But a clean, green, healthy community has what it needs to attract new investments and new jobs.

Our nation would be a different place today if it wasn’t for the Environmental Protection Agency. As we build on forty years of work, EPA depends on your help in strengthening our partnerships with local governments and continuing to make a real difference in people’s lives. As you know, I have outlined seven priorities for EPA’s future. Some of them are consistent with what we have been doing for four decades: Improving Air Quality. Protecting America’s Waters. Cleaning up our Communities. Building Strong State and Tribal Partnerships. Some of them reflect unfinished business from the past, like Assuring the Safety of Chemicals – by bringing chemical laws like TSCA up to speed with the modern chemical industry. Others focus on new challenges, like Expanding the Conversation on Environmentalism and Working for Environmental Justice, and Taking Action on Climate Change. There are a number of ways in which you can help us address those seven priorities – as well as any other issues covered by our mission to protect human health and the environment.

Be our eyes and ears at the local level and serve as an early indicator for emerging environmental and regulatory issues. Help us better understand the kinds of real impacts I spoke about earlier, and give us real-time impressions of the benefits and costs of EPA policy. Through that, you can advise EPA on policies and programs that are not only protective, but also practical. After 40 years, we know that we won’t long benefit from environmental regulations that are perceived as a greater burden than pollution itself. Your candor and experience-based assessments will tell us what works and what needs to change. Bring us your good examples and best practices. Tell us about green sustainable practices in your cities, counties, tribes, and small communities – and help EPA get this message out.

You can also play important advisory roles on EPA’s work in the Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities. Our work with the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development can only benefit from the best ideas of local leaders. In the same way, you can offer assistance where appropriate to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. President Obama has made clear that the best plans will come from the Gulf Coast communities to Washington. As the chair of that Task Force, I’m eager to hear any thoughts and concerns you might have. Mayor Dixson from Greenburg may have valuable insights to offer from his experience leading the rebuilding of Greenburg, Kansas after it was almost completely destroyed by a tornado. His work was a national model for local response paired with federal support, and set Greenburg on a path towards green, sustainable rebuilding. I would be glad for that perspective. As would – I’m sure – Mayor Davis from Prichard, Alabama, whose city has been highly impacted by the BP oil spill.

The last thing I’d like to ask for your help on today is maintaining the bipartisan, or non-partisan, nature of EPA’s work. In the back and forth of national politics and cable news pundits, it can be easy to think of EPA’s work in terms of left and right, without thinking of the real, human impacts. But you all know that pollution doesn’t recognize politics. Environmental health issues fall on Democrats and Republicans alike – and our work has always been nonpartisan. Forty years ago, EPA was created under a Republican administration. Today, I receive as many requests for action from red states as I do from blue states. We are not here to serve an ideology. We are here to serve the American people. We are here to use science and the law to protect health and the environment. That is how we do our best work – and our best work is what is called for in this critical moment.

I’m counting on your partnership – and your leadership – to help move us into the next era of success at EPA. We can try to think in your shoes, but we can’t walk in them. We need your perspective and insight to make our work better. I look forward to our discussion and to working with all of you. Thank you very much.