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Administrator Gina McCarthy, Remarks at National Action Network Breakfast, As Prepared

Thank you so much, Reverend Sharpton. And thank you to all of the distinguished guests here today.

A few months ago, I visited the town of Pilsen in the lower west side of Chicago. An old lead smelter plant used to sit in the middle of town. The plant’s long gone, but its toxic contaminants are still threatening families.

Chicago has seen its fair share of environmental hazards, but it’s also been home to some of the most heroic environmental justice champions of our time, including the “mother of environmental justice,” Hazel Johnson. Mrs. Johnson tirelessly fought for social justice, and was dedicated to confronting the unfair environmental and health impacts in her community. Her work touched so many people back then – including a young community activist named Barack Obama, who worked on a project to clean up asbestos in neighborhoods in the community.

We see low-income neighborhoods, tribal populations, and communities of color overburdened by pollution. That pollution becomes a barrier to economic opportunity and middle-class security—gaps of opportunity that President Obama calls the defining issue of our time.

That’s why EPA matters. At the core of EPA’s mission is the unwavering pursuit of environmental justice—striving for clean air, water, and healthy land for every American. It’s ensuring access to the decision making process, providing new opportunities, and revitalizing our often forgotten places.

Next month we’re not only celebrating Black History Month, we’re also celebrating “Environmental Justice Month.” We’re doing so because February marks the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s executive order embracing environmental justice as a key to ensuring America’s promise of equal opportunity.

Under President Obama’s leadership, we’ve continued that legacy. We’re expanding public outreach, enforcing our laws to defend public health, and holding polluters accountable. And we’ve invested in cities to bring greener spaces to our families where we live, learn, and work.

Still, too many Americans cope with poor air quality, unsafe water, and other health risks that are obstacles to upward mobility. And make no mistake—climate change is one of the greatest obstacles threatening us today and generations to come.

Fires, floods, and storms devastate places already vulnerable to environmental hazards. Carbon pollution fuels climate change along with dangerous co-pollutants that cause chronic disease and chase away local jobs, like it did in Pilsen. And power plants, our biggest source of pollution, are often located in vulnerable communities. That’s why the President's Climate Action Plan is so important. It recognizes an economic, environmental, public health, and moral obligation to address the impacts of climate change.

Under the plan, we’re taking commonsense steps to cut carbon pollution from power plants. We’re investing in clean energy technologies that help create new jobs. And we’re building climate resilience to destructive climate impacts, supporting governors, mayors, businesses, and community leaders already making changes. And throughout it all, we’re making sure we hear from those most vulnerable to climate change. They have to be part of any productive path to solutions.

We need a broad, diverse coalition to champion climate justice in our neighborhoods and schools, and in our places of work and worship. I’m happy to announce EPA's partnership with the Hip Hop Caucus to host events at HBCU’s and minority serving institutions nationwide to hear the voices of action from our young people. We need their voice and we need your voice. We can’t ensure environmental justice and close gaps of inequality without clean air, safe drinking water, and a sustainable environment.

Last week, President Obama convened the first cabinet meeting of the New Year. He made clear that this will be a year of action on the economy, jobs, health care, and the environment; on all of the issues that give every American a fair chance to get ahead.

When we take that action, let’s never forget that we carry forward a fierce spirit of service that defines our country. A spirit that led a young Vivian Malone Jones through the gates of the University of Alabama fifty years ago, and into the halls of the EPA as a champion for environmental justice. It’s a spirit that Hazel Johnson embodied. A spirit exemplified by Dr. King, a man whose memory we honor today.

And it’s that same spirit of service that compels us to leave our children a healthier, safer world.

Thank you all.