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The National Congress of American Indians 1998 Executive Council Winter Session Grand Hyatt Hotel, Washington DC

EPA Administrator Carol Browner Remarks Prepared for Delivery to The National Congress of American Indians 1998 Executive Council Winter Session
Grand Hyatt Hotel, Washington DC

                       February 26, 1998

     Thank you Vice President Stevens for that warm introduction. It is a special privilege and an honor to be here with the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest Indian organization in the country. EPA and tribes, together, have taken great steps forward in the past four years. We have made real progress. We have overcome many obstacles.

     I am delighted to have this opportunity today to take stock of what we have accomplished, and what challenges still remain as we continue our work for cleaner air, cleaner water and safer and healthier communities for every American Indian, for every tribe.

     I would like to extend a special thank you to EPA's Tribal Operations Committee. These people work long hours, are tireless advocates and deeply committed leaders. They are bridge-builders, between EPA and your communities. And because of their hard work -- and that of  N-C-A-I -- we now have stronger partnerships than ever with tribal governments -- partnerships and progress we can all take pride in.

     Four years ago, we sought to reinvigorate EPA's 13 year old Indian policy, to make it fairer, more effective, and to bring relief faster to your communities.

     We established the American Indian Environmental Office -- as one of our first orders of business -- and staffed it with committed, energetic people. Their sole mission is to help you, the tribes, protect the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the land you cultivate, live upon, and share.

     We set up the Tribal Operations Committee, which I already have said, is a vital conduit through which the Agency hears your needs, concerns, ideas, and hopes for a better future.

     And we put our money where our mouth is.

     Under President Clinton's and Vice President Gore's watch, we've seen a steep climb -- a 450 percent climb -- in funding for our Indian program, so you get the tools, resources, and assistance you need to clean up the urgent environmental and public health problems that plague so many of your communities.

     This means more money to clean up underground storage tanks leaking hazardous waste on your lands and into your waters.

     This means more money to rid Indian Country of the scourge of toxic waste sites.

     This means more money for you, the tribes, to watch over your own environment, to be even more effective caretakers of your land, your air, and your water. More and more, we are handing you the baton, so that you can make your own decisions about how to protect your environment and your health.

     In Arizona, the Gila River Indian Community oversees more than 80 percent of pesticide spraying on its land. The Omaha Tribe tests its children for lead in their blood. Today, nearly 130 tribes are implementing their own environmental programs under federal law.

     All this is real progress. We are excited about the hope and promise these resources have brought and will continue to bring. As the President said recently in his State of the Union address, our economy is strong, our nation is strong, now is the time to invest in our people, to build on our momentum, to build on the progress we have made in the last five years for public health and the environment. We must not retire to the sidelines. We have more work to do.

     That is exactly what we're planning. Working harder, working more diligently, and continuing to work closely with you, the tribes, -- government-to-government -- to help you improve the quality of your lives, and the lives of every American Indian.

     We, at EPA, are certainly proud of our Indian policy. You, yourselves, have said that we are a model of how a federal agency should work with tribes. And we have worked hard to deserve such accolades. But we don't kid ourselves. We know the road to recovery is long. We know that together we still have far to go, with many more challenges to face.

     From Montana to South Dakota, we face challenges from states using the courts to undermine tribal authority.  

     We face laws that do not allow us to develop full partnerships with tribes.

     We face a serious deficit of information: Just how polluted is the air, the water, the land in Indian Country? How high are lead levels in American Indian children? How much toxic waste threatens the health and safety of your communities?

     We face a multi-faceted government, where sometimes there is confusion over who is responsible for what.

     We face a need to better train our own staff, to make sure they fully understand your cultures, your traditions, and policies.

     Yes, we still have far to go. But EPA is working hard to shorten the journey.

     We have stood by you on the courthouse steps, defending your right to protect your own environment and your own health under the law. In Montana, we're defending tribal authority to set water quality standards. In New Mexico, the same. We successfully worked the courts to ensure that the city of Albuquerque complied with a Pueblo's water standards.

     We are signing tribal environmental agreements with nearly 60 tribes. These agreements are our roadmaps. They tell us where we are in protecting a tribe's environment, where we still need to go, and how we can get there together. Our 1999 budget includes funds to assess environment and public health problems all across Indian Country -- so we know what the problems are, and what we need to do about them.

     More federal partners are coming on board, and together we are working to erase inconsistencies in how the agencies interpret laws and work with tribes. Recently, the Department of Defense announced that it was developing its first-ever Indian policy, largely modeled after EPA's. And more agencies likely will follow suit.

     We will do everything in our power to foster cooperation among all levels of government -- Indian, state, local, federal -- and protect your sovereignty. Pollution knows no state or tribal boundaries, and neither should our work to clean it up.

     And we are stepping up our efforts to "train the trainers," if you will -- hiring Native Americans to coordinate our efforts and teaching our staff about your world, your needs, your concerns so we can be better and more effective partners.

     But now I must ask you to help us. We cannot continue to ratchet up funding for Indian programs and go the distance unless tribal leaders also make environmental protection a priority, unless you, too, act boldly on the belief that a healthy environment means a healthy tribe, a healthy community.

     We need strong, determined, committed leadership from both the federal government and Indian Country to forge the next generation of solutions. Together, we can reach our goal, that
place where we can finally rest: where every American breathes pure air, drinks clean water, and lives on land that is safe and vibrant with life.

     Thank you.