I’m pleased to have this chance to meet with all of you today. Let me begin by thanking you for the work NEJAC has been doing all these years. Even when you may have felt like you didn’t have the support you needed, or that you were fighting against the current, you stayed committed to these important issues. I’m here to show my appreciation for that, and to extend a hand so that we can rebuild this important partnership.
Environmental Justice is close to my heart for a lot of reasons. As you may have heard, I grew up in the 9th ward of New Orleans – one of the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina. My mother was there at that time, and she lost everything she had. Seeing that devastation – and seeing that many of the people in greatest distress were poor and African-American – put environmental justice at the front of a lot of people’s minds.
But the truth is that the environmental problems in the 9th ward were there well before Katrina. Lead in the soil, toxic chemicals in the water, and dangerous particulates in the air have been problems for generations.
The place where I grew up is like other places in this country. Places where the burden of pollution and environmental degradation falls disproportionately on low-income and minority communities – and most often, on the children in those communities.
It’s something I saw growing up in New Orleans. It’s something that President Obama no doubt saw when he worked with communities on the South Side of Chicago. In fact, it’s something I saw in the paper just yesterday:
In the Washington Post, there was a story about how nearly 40 miles of wetlands along the coast of Louisiana disappear every year. Salt water is flowing in and changing the ecosystem. The loss of marsh grasses and other vegetation is speeding erosion.
And the people hit hardest by that environmental degradation are the local tribes for whom the wetlands are a way of life. Families are finding it harder and harder to fish, trap, or catch the shrimp and shellfish that make up a major part of their economy. As a result, the young people are moving away. The few jobs available are with offshore oil and gas drilling. And the entire community is talking about relocating from the place that they’ve called home for centuries.
We can’t stand by and accept these kinds of disparities. As EPA Administrator, it’s an essential part of my mission to show all Americans that this agency works for them. But we can’t do that without your help.
I made a point in my first day memo to all EPA employees that our efforts should focus on helping people in underserved and highly vulnerable populations. I know that can sound like euphemisms and platitudes, but it has real meaning in our work.
It was the thinking behind one of our very first initiatives – the effort to monitor dangerous particulates around schools. As you know, children are more vulnerable to asthma and other respiratory illnesses – and more susceptible to long-term complications that will affect them throughout their lives. We’re stepping up to ensure that they’re not starting off life with built in challenges.
Earlier this year we also provided $800,000 in grants to fund environmental justice projects. Those will address environmental and public health issues in 28 states.
And we’ve also been working hard to expand our message to new communities. I just returned from the 80th annual meeting of the League of United Latin American Citizens, where we discussed the unique challenges their community faces. Tomorrow, I’ll be speaking to a tribal group. And I’ve had several meetings with many of your local Environmental Justice partners across the country.
But let me say loud and clear: this is just the beginning.
The inauguration of the first African American president, and my subsequent confirmation as the first African American Administrator of this Agency, has forever changed the face of environmentalism in this country. I hope it sends a clear signal that environmentalism does not come in any one shape, size, or look. And if anyone lives out this truth on a daily basis – it’s you.
Environmentalism is not only about protecting wilderness or saving polar ice caps. As important as those things are, environmentalism is also about protecting people in the places where they live, and work, and raise families. It’s about making our urban and suburban neighborhoods safe and clean, about protecting children in their schools, and workers at their jobs.
We have to meet people where they are, and talk to them about environmental issues in language that they understand and can respond to. We have to recognize that no one “owns” the term environmentalism. In these challenging times – as we work to revitalize efforts on climate change, on toxic chemicals in our communities, on air pollution, and water that’s not safe for swimming, fishing or drinking – our reality is that we need help from more than just the people who label themselves as “environmentalists.”
Maybe it’s someone who notices that the kids in their neighborhood can’t go outside and play in the summer because it’s too dangerous to breathe the air. Maybe it’s someone from a fishing community along the Chesapeake Bay, and year after year their local economy suffers because of pollution in the water. Or maybe it’s a local official that wants cleaner beaches because cleaner beaches mean more tourism and more tourism means a better economy.
We have to go to every community – especially those that have been left out and left behind – and impress upon them that the issues of environmental protection are their issues, their work is our work, and their struggles are our struggles. I want you to know that I get that.
I also want to be sure we’re not only talking about downsides. We have in President Obama a leader who rejects the false choice between a green environment and a green economy. That opens up opportunities to create green jobs in the places where both the “green” and “jobs” are absolutely vital.
One central initiative of the Recovery Act provides billions of dollars to weatherize low-income housing. That will put more than 80,000 Americans to work – at the same time that it saves families hundreds of dollars a year in energy costs. We also get a nice cut in emissions in the bargain. It helps communities that stand to benefit the most from higher employment, lower bills, and cleaner air – all in one simple policy.
I’ve personally seen amazing success in the Brownfields and Superfund programs. When you employ someone to clean up sites in their own community, you’re not just creating a job, you’re building an environmentalist from the ground up.
As we see this new economy growing – green jobs, green collar, green energy – some communities who may feel separate from environmental issues suddenly have a real stake in the debate because they have a chance to get those jobs.
Environmental justice can also be a “force multiplier” for other issues.
The people that get sick at two and three times the average rate because of pollution in their neighborhoods are the same people that predominantly get their health care in emergency rooms. That drives up costs system-wide, and hurts both the local and the nationwide economy.
In our schools, when children are repeatedly missing class with asthma or allergies, it affects educational outcomes and long-term economic potential. Not to mention the toll it takes on working parents that have to stay home to tend to their sick kids.
Or in the neighborhood, visible environmental degradation can compound problems. Businesses won’t invest in that community and economic possibilities are limited. As a result crime is higher, violence is higher – often times drugs use is rampant – and the vicious cycle continues.
In the years ahead, I want to see a full-scale revitalization of what we do and how we think about environmental justice. This is not an issue we can afford to relegate to the margins. It has to be part of our thinking in every decision we make. And not just at EPA. We need the nonprofit sector. We need the academic sector. And we need the private sector. It’s absolutely essential that we have a wide range of voices raising these issues.
Earlier this year I was in New Bedford, Massachusetts where I met with a group of environmental activists from the community. One of them was a man named Buddy. Buddy was an older African American man who had been active on environmental justice issues for his community. When I got there, they told me about Buddy. He was well known – and got that way by being a strong and demanding advocate. And he was. He came to the meeting with his remarks prepared, with letters from people he knew, and charts and figures to make his point. He stood up and he told us about his community – which he loved and was proud of. But which needed our help.
When the meeting was over I walked over to two people who had attended but not spoken. I asked why they had stayed quiet the whole time. One of them was on older woman. Without blinking she looked up at me and said, “Buddy speaks for us.”
It made me realize just how valuable Buddy is. And how much we need him in communities all across America, doing the great work that he does.
It’s not always an older African American man. It’s not always a long-time resident of the community. Sometimes “Buddy” is a parent. Sometimes “Buddy” comes from the church. Sometimes, from the chamber of commerce. Sometimes “Buddy” is a local student.
But our communities suffer when they don’t have someone like Buddy to speak for them. We need engaged and active citizens – especially in the places where the challenges seem the greatest. It’s through the action of people like Buddy that we’re going to protect and preserve our environment for generations to come.
My friends, the EPA is once again guided by a broad vision of public health protection and environmental preservation. Environmental justice is central to that vision. I look forward to making real progress in the months and years ahead, and continuing this important partnership.
Thank you again.