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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to the US Attorney Environmental Crime and Enforcement Conference, As Prepared

11/18/2010
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As prepared for delivery.

I am honored to be asked to speak before our nation’s top lawyers, and I’m grateful to each of you for keeping our nation safe. Thank you.

Let me begin by saying what an honor it is to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at this historic moment. For 40 years, EPA has carried out a mission 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. It is a fundamental – and often unsung – role. Our 40th anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on how EPA’s work has benefitted every single American. But we don’t just have the dedicated EPA workers to thank for this. You each play a critical role in helping EPA deliver on our mission to protect human health and the environment, and I know that many of you are as passionate as I am about making a difference in our communities.

So allow me to give credit where it is due. What we’re celebrating this year belongs to every person who has set out to work to protect the environment, to safeguard our health and to make this country a better place to live. In the time between 1970 and today, we have seen the great advances and the shifting challenges of environmental protection. The issues we confront have gone from fighting pollution we can see, smell and taste, to dealing with pollutants and chemicals we’ve only recently had the science to detect. We’ve gone from taking action in local communities, to being a model for global environmental protection. And along the way we’ve seen incredible innovations that have not only protected our environment, but also created new jobs for American workers. In the time between 1970 and today, environmental law has carved out a unique space in our nation.

At its roots, environmental protection emerges from very fundamental notions. The vast majority of Americans believe it’s common sense that our health and our environment are protected by law. Not long ago, USA Today and Gallup released a poll on “How Americans View the Federal Government.” As you can imagine, there were plenty of issues where those polled believed that government should stay out. Yet, only five percent of the respondents felt that government should stay out of environmental protection. Forty-two percent believed that government should have “total responsibility,” while the remaining majority fell somewhere in between. Clearly the American people don’t think factories should be permitted to dump uncontrolled amounts of waste into our rivers, or that the millions of vehicles on our roads today shouldn’t meet some standard for emissions that is protective of the air we breathe. This movement got started when it became clear that the forces of the market were not going to be enough to stop Los Angeles from becoming the smog capital of the world, or prevent situations like the Santa Barbara oil spill and the Cuyahoga River Fire. People demanded new mechanisms for preventing pollution. The EPA was created and a suite of environmental laws were passed so that government could set and enforce standards.

The last four decades have marked incredible progress. The Clean Air Act has cut millions of tons of pollution from our skies, reducing the incidence of asthma attacks, heart disease, and numerous other health conditions. I often think of my youngest son who has battled asthma his whole life. Without the Clean Air Act protecting the air around our home, around his school, around our church and the places we have traveled, there is no telling how much more challenging his condition could have been. I’m sure similar stories can be told by many of you – and by millions of people across this country. Most importantly, that law has literally saved lives – some 200,000 in its first 20 years of existence, and many thousands more since. Today, anyone who breathes has benefitted from these protections over the last 40 years.

Similar accomplishments can be listed for our water. The Clean Water and the Safe Drinking Water Acts have significantly reduced threats to our environment and our health. Years ago, many cities and towns lacked facilities to treat contaminated water, and had little or no information on what bacteria or chemicals might be in the water they delivered. Today, our water protection laws – along with the widespread expansion of water infrastructure – have brought clean, safe water to millions of Americans. The Cuyahoga – along with a number of other major water bodies – are cleaner than they have been in generations. And 92 percent of Americans have access to water that meets national health standards. What this really means is that when you walk to the sink and pour a glass of water for yourself or your children, you can be confident it will be free of pollution. And when you head to the beach next summer, it will be open and safe for swimming.

In the last 40 years we’ve also seen new protections for our communities, in both the cleanup and the regulation of harmful chemicals. Extremely successful initiatives like the Superfund and the Brownfields programs have revitalized some of our country’s most polluted places, provided jobs for thousands of Americans, protected communities from dangerous pollutants and – through effective laws and enforcement – held polluters responsible.

That’s where you come in. Holding polluters responsible is a part of our work. And it’s important to make clear that when people break environmental laws – laws that have proven over these last 40 years to have had a marked difference in the lives of every single American – they put people and communities at risk. We have a strong record of success in enforcing environmental crimes. More than 90 percent of our charged cases resulting in convictions. That success is due in large part to your work at the local level and our work together with many of your districts and the Environmental Crimes Section.

We’ve seen examples of that success as recently as two weeks ago, with the capture of EPA fugitive Albania Deleon. Albania had illegally certified individuals for asbestos removal without the required training. Her actions not only put workers at risk, but also potentially exposed communities working to rid their neighborhoods of asbestos.

Through the efforts of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and AUSA Jon Mitchell, whose office worked in partnership with EPA and other federal agencies to investigate and build the case, we were able to capture Albania and bring her to justice. Another great example is ‘Operation Catch-22.’ The Kroy Corporation and its chief executive, James Garrido were sentenced for smuggling HCFC-22 – an ozone-depleting refrigerant – into the United States. Garrido received a sentence of 30 months in prison and the company was fined. Again, it was teamwork that led to the successful conclusion of this case. With it, we not only continued to protect the ozone layer, but also protected the Kroy Corporation’s competitors who play by the rules.

As we look to the future and the new era of environmental challenges ahead, it’s clear we need smart, effective laws and strong enforcement of these laws more than ever. The collaboration between US Attorneys and EPA’s criminal enforcement personnel is critical to making this happen. Attorney General Eric Holder made this connection clear in a letter he sent last year to every U.S. Attorney. In that letter, he said prosecution of environmental criminals is a priority for the Attorney General’s office and for this Administration. We are, of course, very glad to have his and your support. As we press forward with our criminal enforcement program, our investigators, scientists, and lawyers are here to support you. Together, we can ensure environmental protection today and a clean, healthy environment for future generations.

Let me close with one last word about our accomplishments. For forty years the EPA and its partners in environmental protection have fought to create a better world. And we did that for the benefit of the coming generations – for our children and their children. It’s the same thing we fight for today and it’s something to be very proud of. Along with passing on those environmental benefits, I believe we’ve also managed the truly amazing feat of passing on some of our values – both environmental and those tied to justice.

As the first EPA Administrator with a Facebook Page I think I can speak to the environmental values we’re nurturing pretty accurately. I’ve had opportunities to meet with young environmental leaders all across the nation. I’ve had high level discussions in board rooms and executive meetings, I’ve been to Earth Day festivals and the Daily Show, and I’ve stood on stage with the Flaming Lips and Biz Markie. And what I’ve seen is that growing up in a world with clean water and clean air have not made the next generation complacent. They do not take these things for granted. They are as engaged – if not more engaged – than the generation that got everything started 40 years ago. And that gives me extraordinary hope as we think about the 40 years to come. I thank you once again for this honor, and I look forward to working with you all. Thank you.