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Administrator Gina McCarthy, Remarks at American Bar Association Conference, As Prepared

Thanks for the introduction, Steven. I don’t usually get to come to the ABA conference, but if you guys keep having it places like Miami, I could make it a habit.

It was just four decades ago that oil-slicked rivers caught fire, smog darkened our greatest cities, and schools were built on toxic waste sites. Pollution challenged us in incredible ways. But we also had incredible opportunities for action. Millions called for change, spurring landmark environmental laws and leading to EPA’s creation. And just look our progress: over the last 40 years, we’ve cut air pollution by 70 percent. Two-thirds of our rivers and lakes started off dirty, but now two-thirds are clean. We’ve revitalized countless toxic sites for reuse, bringing back communities from the brink. All while the economy tripled in size. Environmental protection in America is one of the greatest comeback stories of all time.

But that story wasn’t just written by the law, it was written by dogged implementation and enforcement, by a growing body of sound science and solid data, and by an increasingly educated and engaged public. And it was written by the ingenuity of American businesses, and an investment community that turned public health needs into marketable solutions. I never fully appreciated the importance of smart rulemaking and strong enforcement until I started traveling more extensively abroad; which is why EPA spends as much time deploying OGC to talk about the rule of law, as we do technical experts.

Our success, our ability to implement and enforce the law, is nothing less than democracy-in-action, it’s the backbone of America’s environmental protection enterprise. When it works, we protect health, promote growth, and push innovation. I came to ABA because you know that America’s rule of law is only as credible as the system that implements and enforces it.

Laws talk the talk, but enforcement walks the walk. It separates us from other nations. It’s rooted in a responsive democracy that respects and defends our right
to clean air, clean water, and healthy land. And you are a key part of that system. We need to lean into the techniques that have worked in the face of new challenges. Complacency is not an option; we cannot sit on our past successes. Today’s environmental health risks are just as real, even if they’re harder to spot than smoke-stacks or tail-pipes. I would argue they’re more complex than ever before.

Need I say more than the two words, “climate change;” how about stormwater, or lead paint, or pesticides and pollinators, or aging water facilities, or renewable fuels, or radon, or cars and trucks, trains, planes and boats? How about environmental justice, making sure that every community enjoys the benefits of clean air, clean water, and safe and healthy land. I could go on and on.

This isn’t your grandparents’ world, folks. And budgets aren’t exactly booming for federal, state, or local government, far from it. Your members, and the whole environmental enterprise, have to think strategically, together, on how we strengthen our rule of law. We have to revisit the way we do business – how we implement our laws, design our regulations, and assure compliance to meet new and legacy challenges, if we are to remain successful. The good news is, we’ve learned a lot over the last 4 decades. We have cutting-edge emissions monitoring technologies and game-changing ways to enhance data access. They give us a huge opportunity to meet complex challenges with creative solutions.

So it’s clear we need to invest in a 21st century system to meet 21st century challenges. First, we need to work smarter with businesses and across levels of government. Second, we need to write smarter rules, and be smarter about how we implement them. Let’s talk about a few things key things that are happening now.

First, we’re becoming stronger, smarter partners with state, local, and tribal governments, so we avoid duplication and engage more effectively. And we are engaging the private sector-the regulated community early and often. Protecting our health and environment is not a battle of foes. It’s all hands on deck.

Just look at our historic outreach on our Clean Power Plan, even before we proposed it. If that isn’t cooperative federalism, then I don’t know what is. And pay attention to our E-Enterprise initiative, where we work with states to exchange and analyze data that will save time and money for EPA and the regulated community. We’re working on ways to make smarter decisions – from leaning our processes to realigning our budgets. When folks in region 7 took a look at the RCRA cleanup process, they found ways to cut cleanup times by enormous amounts.

We’re using a more modern method of engagement, implementation, and data analysis, that’s what we call our Next Generation, or NextGen, approach to compliance and enforcement. Here’s an example: small pollution sources add up to very real and diffuse problems, so we need to get strategic. For EPA that means taking advantage of high impact cases that have ripple effects across industries. We recently worked directly with Lowe’s Home Improvement on lead paint safety, and now they require thousands of contractors to follow safe lead paint practices. Not only do parents have peace of mind that kids aren’t exposed to lead dust, but contractors who follow the rules won’t have to unfairly compete with those who don’t. When we smooth out illegal market distortions, we all win. This work, and these successes, rely on an active and open dialogue with you, and many of the clients and interests you represent.

Second, we’re writing smarter rules that make it easier to comply with the law than to violate it.

We’re getting creative, like in our 2012 rule that limits the emission of VOC’s, and captures methane, from fracking operations at natural gas wells. The rule uses existing state reporting systems, rather than duplicating them. It lets companies submit a photo, instead of paperwork, to prove that the right technology is on-hand.

And here’s my favorite part, it exempts existing wells that are re-fracked from needing any permits if they’re doing the right thing and recapturing VOCs. We can even craft rules to help track hard-to-detect fugitive emissions. We work with companies to identify and use new technologies so we can reduce emissions from flares at refineries. That’s a perfect example of how collaborative enforcement can give us the information we need to lower pollution and costs. Smart regulation is about making compliance the path of least resistance – that path isn’t weak, it’s strong. So when we write smarter rules, and when we work smarter with our partners across the board, we can take on our 21
st century challenges. But here’s the thing: our challenges aren’t just environmental, they’re economic, too. The folks in this room get it. Violating the law distorts markets and devalues our economy.

But when we act, we can weed out bad actors so companies play on a level field. Those companies who comply with the law following your legal counsel should not be left at a competitive disadvantage. Our environmental protection enterprise, and our system of commerce, only work if you can trust the fuel economy sticker on your car, so to speak. Effective laws that protect public health also protect our pocketbooks.

I want to make that point clear: when we enforce and implement our laws, we don’t weigh down economic growth, we fortify it. We make it more credible, more certain, and more valuable. Time and time again, investors and innovators have found ways to increase productivity while reducing health risks. Those who fail to see that fact, lack faith in American ingenuity.

That’s what America does best, we innovate our way to a better, more productive future. We turn challenges into opportunities to get ahead. Just like the internet revolutionized the way we interact with information, 21
st century advances in environmental technology can revolutionize environmental protection. Just one example is our work with Rutgers University to use a self-propelling, remote-controlled, underwater glider to measure coastal water quality. Before, we had to take boats out and fill up buckets of water…seriously.

Today, high tech devices that monitor air and water quality are solar powered and hand held. They’re getting smaller, cheaper, and better by the minute, and they post pollution information online in real time. Just as it was at the beginning of the environmental movement, information is still power. And that power can broaden the tent, so environmental protection stays true to its grassroots. That’s how citizen science is changing the game. Armed with just a cell phone, you can help crowd-source data about your surroundings. When people are aware of health risks, they’re empowered to act. That’s why enforcement settlements are requiring companies to use advanced pollution monitoring technology, because we place a premium on accurate, available information. The need to invest in new technology, new methods, and new ideas is clear. But make no mistake, we still need EPA boots on the ground. At the end of the day, EPA has an enduring obligation to the American people, to hold serious violators accountable.

For example, this year we worked with the department of justice to close the book on the largest cleanup case in history. From pesticides and PCBs in Jacksonville, to radioactive waste the Navajo Nation’s drinking water, communities across America will get over $4 billion dollars to clean up pollution. That amount represents an investment in these communities, to bring back the economic activity that can only come with healthy people and healthy places. Our enforcement and compliance work, our grants, technical assistance, and frankly everything EPA does, must focus on communities that need it most. These are communities in cities in rural areas where you live and work; where many of your clients are located and do business. That’s what environmental justice is all about.

When environmental laws are violated, families living in the shadow of polluting industries suffer. It’s hard to find work if you’re at home sick or caring for a sick child. Pollution widens gaps of economic opportunity. Focusing on overburdened communities helps close those gaps, something president Obama calls a defining challenge of our time. Environmental justice is equal justice under the law.

And at the end of the day, I’m here at ABA because you all play a critical role in this country’s environmental protection enterprise.

We depend on creative, forward-thinking legal professionals like you. After the birth of our environmental laws, environmental lawyers were experts on a single statute, or a single area. Interaction with regulators came through lawsuits. But those days are over. Times are different. Today’s lawyers work with a more diverse group of experts like scientists and economists. Today’s lawyers wield much broader expertise. And you carry forward your obligation, and opportunity, as part of the environmental bar to think through solutions up front, so we’re not just talking to each other at the tail end of compliance conversations.

As you advise your clients, talk to us early and often – and take advantage of our resources and scientists. From our work on climate change to clean water, as our rules go through public comment periods, I hope you’ll be engaged. Now’s the time to jump in, we have a no-stone-unturned policy, and that doesn’t mean it’s only scientists and economists that can weigh in. We want your input, too.

We all have a right to a safe and healthy environment. Our people demand it. Our laws promise it. And our courts reaffirm it. That’s what brings us here. When I think about how effective we’ve been, I keep coming back to the same reason.

It’s because our laws have teeth. It’s because EPA is empowered to enforce them. And it’s because of your work to uphold the integrity of our environmental statutes. Enforcement is democracy in action. Although we’ve come a long way, our work is far from done. And although our challenges have evolved, I’m sure we can evolve to meet them with the same grit and innovation that has led to America to world-leading progress.

Thank you.