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Speeches - By EPA Administrator

 

Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the Fighting for Survival Conference in New Orleans, As Prepared

08/26/2010
As prepared for delivery.

Thank you all for being here and for devoting your time, your expertise and your resources. It’s wonderful to be back in New Orleans and at Tulane. As many of you know, I grew up not far from here, in Pontchartrain Park. And I went to school right here at Tulane. It gives me great comfort – and great hope – to see so many extraordinary thinkers and leaders focused on this community.

Five years ago this week, I was at my mother’s house in Pontchartrain Park, watching news reports about the approaching storm. Though I was living in New Jersey at the time, I had come down to visit for her birthday. Although we didn’t get to celebrate, I feel fortunate that I was there to help drive her to safety. When the storm came and the levee system failed, our home – the home I grew up in – was completely flooded. My mother lost everything she had.

It was that incident that put this city in a fight for survival – a fight that has been compounded over the years by an economic crisis and, now, the worst oil spill in our nation’s history. There are several fronts in this fight. Today, I want to offer you my perspective – as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and as someone who calls this place home – on where I believe we must focus if we’re going to win this fight.

The first front in this fight for survival has to be the urgent protection and restoration of our wetlands. Today, my mother can go on and on about the importance of marsh grasses and the dangers of siltation. That’s because, after the storm, she learned that the flooding was so destructive because our marshes and wetlands – the area’s natural and most effective defenses – were rapidly disappearing. They have been destabilized by the channeling of the Mississippi River for navigation. They have been covered over by levee construction. And perhaps most damagingly, they have been cut away for the placement of oil and gas lines.

The wetlands are more than just a storm buffer – they are the beating heart of this region. The coastal waters support a multi-billion-dollar fishing industry that is a way of life for families and communities. The rich sediment and marsh grasses help filter pollution and provide a home for the Gulf’s priceless and delicate ecosystem. Today we are losing these resources at the pace of about a football field every 30 minutes.

Some of you may have heard – and some of you will remember – that when the flood waters filled the city, it was not just a danger to property. The waters were profoundly polluted. They presented a serious health threat to the residents and the responders. Here we have another front in the fight – the need to eliminate toxic chemicals and waste in this community.

Prior to the storm, New Orleans led the nation in generating the most hazardous industrial waste per capita. Many of you probably know the strip of industrial plants that runs from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, an area that has been known as “Cancer Alley.” In the flooding, those materials were picked up and carried in the waters, spreading throughout the city. Five years later, significant challenges remain. New Orleans is home to 14 Superfund sites, where EPA handles some of the most significant pollution. The city also has 35 brownfields sites, where contaminated lots are being remediated for redevelopment. These numbers are not entirely bad – they reflect places where necessary remediation work is taking place. Many of these projects are getting pollution out of communities and putting jobs back in. But we have to be certain that, in the long-term, the prevalence of toxic chemicals in this area is reduced.

The third front in this fight is one where people may literally find themselves fighting for survival – and that’s in the quality of the air. During the Deepwater BP spill, one of EPA’s primary tasks was to monitor the air quality and alert the public to possible health threats. Our readings for the past three months have been in the normal range for this time of year. However – normal still means the possibility for unsafe exposure to airborne pollutants like smog and particulate matter.

Like most things that happen here, this is an issue that touches me personally. My youngest son has battled with asthma all of his life. His first Christmas was spent in the hospital, unable to breathe. Over the years, there have been a countless number of nights when I’ve been awoken by the horrible sounds of his croup. One of the worst incidents was years ago, on a trip to visit my mother here in New Orleans. Even though we always travel with his nebulizer, his masks and his medication, this time the attack was so severe that we had to take him to a hospital. This kind of thing happens far more often than it should. On hot summer days that we have here, it can be downright dangerous for people to even leave their homes. That is especially true for children and the elderly.

Fourth on my list is the issue of sustainable growth – and it’s something that is happening, slowly but surely, in my old neighborhood, Pontchartrain Park.

But before I go any further, let me say that this is not the first challenge my old neighborhood has faced. Pontchartrain Park was born in the 1950s during the Jim Crow years as a community for African Americans. It was one of the very first opportunities for black families to own homes in New Orleans. Our homes were arranged around a golf course planned by Joseph Bartholomew, who had designed several golf courses in the New Orleans area. The cruel irony was that, because he was black, he was forbidden from playing on them.

Those first residents of Pontchartrain Park were among the first black homeowners in the area. And while that was an accomplishment in itself, what it really meant – what was truly important – was the range of new possibilities it opened for the next generation. I was fortunate enough to be part of that "next generation." The success of my parents and their neighbors became apparent as the kids I grew up with went on to become lawyers and teachers and doctors and artists and more. Some of my friends were the first in their families to go to college. Others became famous – like the jazz musician Terence Blanchard, or the actor Wendell Pierce. The Park was also home to “Dutch” Morial, the first African-American mayor of New Orleans. His son Marc went on to be mayor as well.

That was the proud history Pontchartrain Park expected to be celebrating in 2005, its 50th Anniversary. Then came Hurricane Katrina. After half a century of work and progress, the neighborhood was destroyed. But the fight was still intact. Today my old neighborhood is being re-born, with an entirely different vision. It is set to be a model of new urbanism, a place where livability, environmental responsibility and economic opportunity come together. Construction has just completed on the first two new, green houses. My childhood home has been slated for redevelopment by the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corp., an organization formed by Wendell Pierce, who is now leading efforts to rebuild and revitalize the area as a sustainable, green community. Let me also point out that those new homes are being built by All American Homes from Elkhart, Indiana, another community that is reinventing itself to find its way in the 21st century economy.

This is just the beginning. All across the city, people are building efficient homes, riding hybrid buses, installing solar panels and working in green-collar jobs. Organizations like Brad Pitt’s Make It Right and Global Green are helping us not just to rebuild on top of the old, but to create something new and better. This morning I met with 4th graders at Metarie Academy who had grown and planted more than 600 cypress and red ampel trees along the coastline – part of the LSU Coastal Roots program. Tomorrow I’m supposed to attend a gathering of the 50 by 5 initiative, and tour one of the 50 new green homes they built. It is critical that we’re not just building sustainable homes- but that we’re building a sustainable movement.

Which brings me to my fifth point – my final point, and perhaps my most important. It is about the need to expand the conversation on environmental issues, and include the individuals and communities who have not always been a part of this discussion. Ironically, opening up the discussion is critical if we want to do anything more than talk. Because ultimately, it will be the people here who will continue this fight for survival.

I spoke earlier about the wetlands being carved up by oil and gas pipelines. My family owned a small piece of swamp land that had been passed down over generations. The only income they ever saw from oil and gas royalties were meager and paid without consultation. You can believe that won’t happen again. As I said, my mother, who like many others wouldn't have called herself an environmentalist before Katrina, has joined the strong calls for wetlands restoration and protection coming from communities across the region.

Last year, on my first official trip here as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, I met an elderly man who had lived in New Orleans most of his life. All that was left of his home was a set of concrete steps. I was introduced to him on the site where a new home is being built – a home that will be sustainable, energy efficient and full of innovative designs and technologies. It's one of many green homes that are going up in the community. At one point I asked him, “Would you say that you are an environmentalist?” He answered, “Well – I wasn’t….But now I get it.” After Katrina and the BP spill, the understanding that environmental issues have a real impact on everyday life is taking hold. I think that people are beginning to understand that they have a stake in the decisions that are being made.

These are just a handful of the challenges this community faces. The need to restore the wetlands. The need to clean up contaminated sites and repurpose them for the benefit of the city. The need to remove harmful health threats from the air we breathe. The need to rebuild sustainably. And the need to engage and empower every single community here, so that they can shape the economic and environmental future of their city.

And winning this fight for survival is important to the entire country. I believe that evidence of renewal is more important here in New Orleans than in any other place in our country. It means that in a place where so many people have lost everything – in Pontchartrain Park or the Lower Ninth Ward – they still have hope for the days and years ahead. That, in turn, provides hope in other places. Struggling auto communities have hope that old industrial centers can be restored and bring jobs back to those communities. Inner city neighborhoods have hope that polluted lots can be transformed into parks or shops. People in communities across the nation have hope that revitalization is possible no matter what the odds.

When people see that this city – a city that has been through an unprecedented environmental disaster and an unavoidable national economic downturn – is able to rebuild, it shines a light on the road ahead of us. That is what we are fighting for. It’s clear with the challenges before us that there is still a long, long way to go. But the things I see here give me hope that we can give this city, this country, and the next generation a better future. Thank you very much for your concern and hard work.