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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks on the 40th Anniversary of the EPA, As Prepared

As prepared for delivery.

40 years ago today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency opened its doors for the very first time. And what started four decades ago today began a history of tangible improvements to the health and the environment of the American people. Let me begin by saying that this is very special to me personally. I started my career at this agency. I came to EPA because of my love of science, and because I wanted to use that love of science to help people. I came to EPA because of the value I placed on the natural environment, after growing up on the Gulf Coast in New Orleans, living by the water and studying in the wetlands. And I came here because, after seeing events like Love Canal, I knew that EPA would give me a chance to come to work and serve people. As it is for so many of you, the protection of our health and the environment is not just my job – it’s my lifelong passion.

I’ve seen EPA change and grow under three presidents and six different administrators. Since becoming Administrator I’ve had the chance to speak with some of my predecessors who have taught me a great deal about this job. Leaders like William Ruckelshaus, our first administrator. William Riley, Michael Leavitt, Christine Todd Whitman, and my colleague in the administration, Carol Browner. It is my pleasure and my privilege to follow in their footsteps and to lead this agency on the occasion of our 40th anniversary.

As you know, today culminates a year of events to mark this milestone. We had a truly excellent Speakers Series that brought in environmental chefs to talk about sustainable food, environmental authors to discuss their books, great thinkers like Thomas Friedman and Amory Lovins, actors and entertainers with environmental messages and distinguished moderators like Gwen Ifill. Earlier this year, we commemorated the success of the Clean Air Act – obviously one of the major parts of EPA’s 40-year history. And across the country our Regional offices have been marking this occasion. This week I’ve spoken to everyone from students to EPA staff in Georgia and New York. Tomorrow I’ll be heading off to Boston to visit our regional offices there and to be part of Harvard University’s commemoration of EPA’s 40th birthday.

At a meeting with the National Academies of Science we looked back at our 40 years of successes, and then looked ahead by initiating a process for the National Academies to help us increase sustainability in our work. I was also invited to the Aspen Institute, a leading think tank that brought together leaders from the history of this movement to highlight 10 ways the EPA has made America stronger. These are initiatives that every one of you has probably had a hand in. Those include:

Removing Lead from Gasoline and from the Air – a change that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Removing the Acid from Rain – an innovative, cost-effective effort EPA undertook to handle a complex challenge. Clearing Secondhand Smoke – which helped children and families and everyone else live healthier lives. Vehicle Efficiency and Emissions Control – thanks to EPA, cars today are far cleaner than they were a generation ago. Controlling Toxic Substances – a critical children's health issue. Banning Widespread Use of DDT – the subject of Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring; a chemical that was reported to be in nearly every meal in America; a toxin that almost wiped out our national symbol, the bald eagle; banned because of EPA's efforts. Rethinking Waste as Materials – an effort that continues to grow in both utility and importance, especially as we deal more and more with electronic wastes. A Clean Environment for All/Environmental Justice – an issue that ensures we are reaching every single community, helping them see their stake in a clean environment, and empowering them to get there. Cleaner Water – something every American holds dear and one of the places where EPA touches our daily lives the most. And The “Community Right to Know” Act – an essential part of the work we do.

All of this – the year of events, today’s special guests and the cabinet members who came to thank you, the Aspen list and the many other expressions of support and gratitude from individuals and environmental groups – is for you. And as we look back 40 years, let me pause a moment to say thank you for the last two years. Since January of 2009 this agency has accomplished incredible things.

We have built a strong foundation for the seven priorities that will shape EPA’s future in the next 40 years. We are Taking Action on Climate Change through the Endangerment Finding and the clean cars program. We are Improving Air Quality with tough new standards for smog, the first national limits to reduce mercury from cement plants and the first new standards for NO2 in 35 years. We are Assuring the Safety of Chemicals with specific action plans for managing widely-used chemicals. We are Cleaning Up Communities, primarily through swift implementation of the Recovery Act. That effort funded numerous Superfund and Brownfields cleanups, along with investments in water infrastructure, clean diesel technology, and repairs to leaking underground storage tanks. We are Protecting America’s Waters with new levels of engagement in the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, Puget Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. WE are Expanding the Conversation on Environmentalism and Working for Environmental Justice by welcoming new voices to these discussions and issuing guidance on how every office can incorporate EJ into their decision making. And last but certainly not least, Building Strong State and Tribal Partnerships by working closely with our partners at the state level and relocating our Tribal initiatives into the Office of International and Tribal Affairs.

You have done incredible work. I thank you for that. The highest honors of this 40th anniversary go to the people of this agency. And that is what I want to do today: honor you. You have seen and heard over the course of this event the thoughts of your co-workers on what it means to work at EPA. That is what I want to share with you today. I want to talk about the people who make this place what it is.

Some of you decided long ago that you wanted to protect the environment. Like the young woman who determined in the 7th grade that she wanted to work at EPA, and today serves in our Region 8 office. We have a colleague in Region 5 who learned about the ozone layer in 3rd grade and never considered another career path than the one that brought him to EPA.

One employee in the Superfund Division used to play on the shores of Jamaica Bay in New York, where her mother warned her not to touch the polluted water. At nine years old, she took samples with an eye dropper and put them under her microscope. She said, “Just like Derek Jeter knew he wanted to be a New York Yankee as a child, I knew I wanted to be a scientist and work for EPA.” She started with EPA as a summer intern in 1985 and is still working here today. She said, “I'm still thinking about contaminated water. Forty years ago, I couldn't do much about it. But, over the past twenty-five years, I have.”

In the last 40 years, many members of our workforce have come to EPA because of the events in their own lives. Some of you experienced asthma as children, or like me, have a family member who fights this disease. My youngest son has asthma – and I’m grateful every day for EPA’s work to keep the air clean around our home, his school, our church and everywhere we go.

Maybe you’re like our co-worker in OCSPP, who has been at EPA for 32 years and believes she’s making up for the damage her Great Grandfather did as a gold rusher decades ago. Maybe your story is similar to that of our colleague who learned to swim in Lake Michigan, and came back one summer to find a beach covered with dead fish. When that happened, she said, “on that beach I made a decision to devote my life to working for environmental protection.” She serves today in Region 8 and has been with EPA for 22 years. Or perhaps you’re like the young man who started at EPA just two years ago. His mother was diagnosed with leukemia, part of a cancer cluster around a chemically polluted river near her childhood home. EPA helped clean up the river and removed the threat to future generations. Today his mother is in remission, and he has never forgotten EPA’s efforts. He said, “When I come to work every day, I remember what EPA did for my mother and her friends…If I have been able to make a difference for at least one community in my time with the Agency, then I have succeeded at paying it forward for what EPA has done to help my mom.”

Many of you have shared stories of the progress you witnessed here at EPA. For example, a Brownfields cleanup in Milwaukee's Menominee Valley. It began in 1998 as a contaminated lot and today is home to soccer fields, a biking trail and a business park that is about to welcome a wind turbine manufacturer. Or a Superfund site in Joplin, Missouri, where EPA removed 100-foot-high piles of mining waste. Since 1991 EPA and the responsible parties there have provided about 500 households with public water supplies, cleaned up day care centers, schools and about 2,600 residential yards with lead-contaminated soils.

A woman working with the Tools for Schools program on indoor air heard reports from a school nurse that simple changes have reduced by half the number of kids coming to the office for their asthma inhalers. Another woman, a 30-year agency veteran, said her favorite project was in Libby, Montana – a community already facing high levels of exposure to asbestos. She was part of the EPA team that helped replace dirty-burning wood stoves in Libby and reduced particle pollution enough for the area to attain the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter. We even heard from a 20-year agency veteran whose top EPA memory is from a project he didn't even work on. As he was driving home from a wildlife refuge, he passed his old hometown – the city where he grew up and went to college. He was proud to see a sign on the local wastewater treatment plant that read "Funded by a grant from USEPA." He said, “it was nice to see the Agency I work so hard for all these years do something good for the poor city in which I grew up.”

Many of you have also worked with EPA through hard times, including incidents like the BP spill. This was one of the greatest challenges this agency has ever faced. Many of you gave up nights and weekends and birthdays and holidays to be part of the response. Some people gave up their entire summer, and are still hard at work today. EPA’s history is made in these challenging moments – and we are all part of this moment in our history. I would like today to recognize everyone who took part in the BP spill response. I ask you to please stand.

There is another group I want to recognize as well. On July 26 – a few months after the BP spill began – a 30-inch oil pipeline ruptured near Marshall, Michigan. The release was estimated at more than 800,000 gallons of oil. The spill made its way into the Kalamazoo River, heading towards Lake Michigan. But within two days the spill was contained – approximately 80 river miles from the Lake. That success was thanks in no small part to the quick work of EPA. Even while we had enormous resources tied up on the Gulf Coast, our workers stepped up to address yet another emergency. And they did so with extraordinary skill. I’m happy today to recognize those workers in Region 5 and beyond.

The 40-year history of EPA is a history of people like us. These are your stories. We are all part of this, from the individuals who started 3 months ago, to our charter members – who are here with us today in the front row – to the people who have been here 39 or 35 or 20 or 10 years.

Let me close with the words of one of our colleagues from the air office, who is retiring tomorrow after 37 years with EPA. Of his years as part of this agency he said, “I will always be proud to have been a part of one of America’s greatest endeavors.” Our people – all of you – made the last 40 years so incredible. Our work as One EPA is the foundation for our next four decades of success. At 40 years old, EPA should be ready to perform at a higher level than ever before. The future of this agency is in all of you – those who make an extraordinary difference, day in and day out. I am proud to be with you today, and to come to work by your side every day. Thank you very much. Happy 40th anniversary.