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EPA Administrator Wheeler Delivers Address at Nixon Presidential Library

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Yorba Linda, Calif. (September 3, 2020) — Today, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler delivered an address at the Nixon Presidential Library commemorating the agency's 50th anniversary and laying out a vision of environmental policy for the next 50 years. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:

“Good afternoon.

It’s a privilege and an honor to be here at the Nixon Library to talk about the federal government’s role in environmental protection during the next 50 years.

Thank you, Congressman Calvert, for those great remarks. 

Thank you to Jim Byron and the Nixon Foundation board and staff for making this day possible.

And to all the other distinguished guests, thank you for being here, and thank you for the work you are doing to help this country and your communities become safer, healthier places to live.

Let me start by saying something that should be old and familiar knowledge. America’s environment today is cleaner than it’s ever been in our lifetimes.

It got this way, in large part, because of President Richard Nixon, who in 1970 created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed into law the Clean Air Act.

Later this year, EPA will be celebrating its 50th anniversary.

So today is an opportunity for me, as EPA’s 15th Administrator, to celebrate the things that have worked well for this country’s environment, and to look for ways to improve environmental outcomes over the next 50 years.

The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which were both enacted in Nixon’s first term, have become the foundational environmental statutes to guide EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment.

Since the early 1970s, EPA’s job has been pretty straight forward: “Clean up America.”

And the agency has done just that. 

In 1970, lead gasoline and lead-based paint were still in common use.

Asbestos and dioxins were viewed as assets to many products, not as dangerous pollutants. 

Now, all three of these hazards are largely banned from commerce, along with hundreds of other dangerous chemicals and compounds.

EPA’s mission has been straight forward since its founding. Protect human health and the environment.

Doing this ensures that all Americans – regardless of their zip code – have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and clean land to live, work, and play upon. 

Under President Trump, we have done this as well, if not better, than any recent administration. 

  • During the first three years of the Trump Administration, air pollution in this country fell 7 percent.
  • Last year, EPA delisted 27 Superfund sites, the most in a single year since 2001.
  • And agency programs have contributed more than $40 billion dollars to clean water infrastructure investment during President Trump’s first term.

This is great news, and like most great news, you rarely read about it in the press.

Our country – which has received some of the most exceptional natural and environmental gifts ever given to a human society – has shown that it can have both great environmental outcomes and economic growth – when it strives to. 

And the reason these great things happened is through the development of a political consensus on environmental policy – and the will of the American people.

Legislation like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the 1990 Clean Air Amendments, and the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments all passed with bipartisan support and with Presidents of a different party than the party controlling Congress.

For much of the latter part of the 20th century, there was bipartisan understanding on what environmental protection meant.

Some of it was captured in legislation and some it by established practice. 

These principles formed a consensus about how the federal government did its job of protecting the environment.

President Trump recognized this consensus when he asked me to take over the agency in 2018.

And his directions were pretty straight-forward.

He said, “Andrew, I want you to continue cleaning up our air, continue cleaning up our water, and deregulate to create more jobs for the American public.”

He knew we can do all three at the same time.

And so do I, and I’m sure all of you do as well.

But unfortunately, in the past decade or so, some members of former administrations and progressives in Congress have elevated single issue advocacy – in many cases focused just on climate change – to virtue-signal to foreign capitals, over the interests of communities within their own country.

Communities deserve better than this, but in the recent past, EPA has forgotten important parts of its mission. It’s my belief that we misdirect a lot of resources that could be better used to help communities across this country.

So, if this is where we are – with misdirected policies, misused resources, and a more partisan political environment – and we want an EPA for the next 50 years – how do we get there?

One way to do this – and I’ve spent more than 25 years thinking about this problem – is to focus on helping communities become healthier in a more comprehensive manner.

Communities that deal with the worst pollution in this country – and tend to be low-income and minority – face multiple environmental problems that need solving.

Currently, one of the biggest challenges facing EPA has been our effort to tear down the silos between programs within the agency to be more effective in addressing the environmental burdens that communities face.

We must do this because the current lack of effectiveness has contributed to some very perverse environmental outcomes and resulted in a lot of unintended consequences. 

So, going forward, as my favorite author William Shakespeare has written: 

“See first that the design is wise and just; that ascertained, pursue it resolutely.”

Environmental Justice Delayed
Because communities and political leaders will always struggle with where to put their limited resources. 

They’ll focus on the squeaky wheel.

An environmental inspector tells them they have to get back into air attainment, so they focus all their attention and resources on that. Meanwhile, there is still lead in the water pipes of their schools which goes ignored for decades.

When I was a staff director in the Senate in 1997, we took testimony in the Environment and Public Works Committee from Mayor Emma J. Hull of Benton Harbor, Michigan. 

The community at that time was about 90 percent African American, poverty rates there were very high, and the town had not recovered from the deindustrialization of the 70s.

Mayor Hull’s message to the committee was that EPA’s Brownfields program was telling her that if the city applied for EPA grants, many old, abandoned industrial facilities could get cleaned-up, redeveloped, and new jobs could be created.

But then EPA’s air office told her that Benton Harbor is in a non-attainment zone, and that she could not bring new business into the city, because they’re not going to get new air permits.

So how was Benton Harbor going to use its experienced manufacturing workforce if no new factories could be built?

It’s a good question, and one that has remained unanswered for many decades.

I saw Benton Harbor’s experience as similar to the community I grew up in, just north of Cincinnati.

The neighboring town of Hamilton, at one point in the 19th and 20th century was one of the world most important manufacturers of paper, bank vaults and safes, as well as machine tools and railroad switches.

But as deindustrialization overtook Hamilton – as it did Benton Harbor – its economic health weakened, jobs were eliminated and businesses closed down, leaving behind abandoned buildings, polluted industrial sites, and the people who have set down roots there.

New businesses coming into southwestern Ohio did not return to Hamilton. 

They went to the suburbs, where cheaper farmland and less pollution made commercial investment easier – and which created its own environmental costs as more farmland was paved over and turned into businesses and housing.

Where we are
Many of the sites EPA has responsibility for are in some of the most disadvantaged communities in this country.

And I will point out a truism. Neglect is a form of harm, and it’s not fair for these communities to be abandoned just because they don’t have enough political power to stop the neglect.

So where does this put us as a country in 2020?

The truth is this country is facing a lot of environmental and social problems that have not been dealt with the right way up until now.

And while the focus of the next 50 years should not be like the last 50, it should be informed by it.

Many towns and cities in the United States are using the same water infrastructure they’ve used for over 100 years, and many schools use lead water pipes long after such pipes were banned from new buildings.

The American public views our pesticide program through the lens of the trial lawyers who advertise on television instead of the way we manage the program.

And the Superfund Program – which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, has become focused on process, rather than project completion.

If you look for answers on why environmental injustice takes place today – one should start by asking why the most under-resourced and economically vulnerable communities in this country are the places with the most pollution?

It’s not happenstance, nor a coincidence. 

I’d like to be able to say that communities like Benton Harbor and Hamilton and the many thousands of other communities that need help in this country have been helped by improved environmental governance over the past 20 years – but most of them have not.

Benton Harbor’s poverty rate in the past 20 years has risen, not fallen. It is now about 46 percent, up from 42 percent in 2000.

Hamilton’s population peaked in 1960, fell by more than 10 percent by 1980, and has stayed stagnant ever since.

Rhetoric vs. Outcomes
These issues are challenging and would be difficult for any administration in office. But they would be easier to solve if people in power were more aware of the consequences of poor environmental policies.

Having worked in Washington for many years, I’ve gotten used to policy arguments being divorced from good economic outcomes.

But when it comes to environmental policy being divorced from good environmental outcomes, the situation becomes much harder to accept.

If you’ve ever wondered why Republicans can get upset sometimes, here are some reasons.

It’s very disappointing to see governors on the East Coast, such as Governor Cuomo, unilaterally block pipelines that would take natural gas from Pennsylvania to New York and New England. 

These poor choices subject Americans to imports of gas from places like Russia, even in the face of evidence that U.S. natural gas has a much cleaner emissions profile than imported gas from Europe.

Governor Cuomo is doing this in the name of climate change, but the carbon footprint of natural gas to New England through pipeline is much smaller than transporting it across the ocean.

It also forces citizens in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine to use more polluting wood and heating oil to heat their homes because of gas shortages in the winter months, which in turn creates very poor local air quality.

And there are many examples of poor environmental outcomes here in California, despite its environmental reputation.

It should go without saying that dumping sewage into San Francisco Bay without disinfection, indeed without any chemical or biological treatment, is a bad idea, but that’s what been happening for many years, against federal law.

And just last month, the rolling blackouts created by California’s latest electricity crisis – the result of policies against power plants being fueled by natural gas – spilled 50,000 gallons of raw sewage into the Oakland Estuary when back-up wastewater pumps failed.

As state policymakers push more renewables onto the grid at times of the day when renewables aren’t available, these environmental accidents will happen more often.

CARB seems to have no appreciation for baseload power generation. Or at least their regulations don’t.

Instead of confusing words with actions, and choosing empty symbolism over doing a good job, we can focus our attention and resources on helping communities help themselves.

Doing this will strengthen this country from its foundation up – and start to solve the environmental problems of tomorrow.
Solving the Problems of Tomorrow

We could do a lot of good if the federal government, through Congress, puts resources to work with a fierce focus on community-driven environmentalism that promotes community revitalization on a greater scale.

This will do more for environmental justice than all the rhetoric in political campaigns.

No one program at one agency can solve all our problems, but I believe the environmental policy establishment in this country has missed a lot of opportunities in the past several decades.

Over the next four years the Trump Administration is going to reorganize how it approaches communities so it can take action and address the range of environmental issues that need to be addressed for people and places in need. 

Environmental protection is the forerunner, the prerequisite for economic growth and job creation. If we can solve this problem in the way I’m talking about it, we can give many Americans a much better future in the next 50 years.

And I really believe that.

21st Century EPA – The Next Four Years
A new focus on community-driven environmentalism is the best opportunity in at least a generation to solve the environmental justice issues we face today.

If we focus on communities where past industrial pollution has had a negative impact on the well-being of people and local economies, this agency could transform itself into a much better version of government, with benefits that last for many administrations. 

In President Trump’s second term, we will help communities across this country take control and reshape themselves through the following five priorities.

  1. Creating a Community-Driven Environmentalism that Promotes Community Revitalization.
  2. Meeting the 21st Century Demands for Water.
  3. Reimagining Superfund as a Project-Oriented Program.
  4. Reforming the Permitting Process to Empower States.
  5. And, Creating a Holistic Pesticide Program for the Future.

These communities I’ve mentioned have been shaped in negative ways by their history of pollution. 

Winston Churchill once said that “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.”

He was talking about the House of Commons, which had been damaged during World War II, and there were questions about whether it should be rebuilt at all.

Churchill recommended the Commons be renovated and restored to its previous greatness. And that’s what we going to do with communities across this great county.

For communities, traditionally, EPA has focused on environmental issues in a siloed manner that only looks at air, water and land separately, and states and local communities end up doing the same. 

We will change this, and look at Brownfields grants, environmental justice issues, and air quality in each community at the same time and encourage them to do the same.

Since EPA’s Brownfields Program began in 1995, nearly $1.6 billion dollars in grants have been spent to clean-up contaminated sites and return blighted properties to productive reuse.

To date, communities participating in the Program have been able to attract an additional $33.3 billion dollars in cleanup and redevelopment funding after receiving Brownfields funds.

As we move forward with our PFAS and Lead Action plans that tear down the silos between agency programs, there will be more rapid improvements to the quality of local projects.

And when combined with the Opportunity Zones created in the landmark 2017 Trump tax bill, economic development, job creation and environmental improvements can truly operate together at the same time.

A study published last month found that Opportunity Zones, which have only been in existence since 2018, have attracted about $75 billion dollars in private investment, which in turn has lifted about one million people out of poverty through job creation in a very short time.

While all the economic data isn’t available yet for 2019, it’s possible that Opportunity Zones are one of the biggest reasons black unemployment in this country fell to its lowest recorded levels ever in 2019.

And there are 450,000 – nearly half a million -- potential Brownfields opportunities still waiting for cleanup and investment, and we’ve completed clean-up on only 2,000.

One other way we are going to help communities is by creating one consolidated grant program that combines several smaller grants from multiple programs.

It will help focus local communities to view environmental problems holistically, and it will help refocus EPA.

And there is scope to do a lot more. 

We can meet the 21st Century Demands for Clean Water by creating an integrated planning approach using WIFIA loans, our Water Reuse Action Plan, and our Nutrient Trading Initiative to improve water quality and modernize legal frameworks that have been around since the 19th Century.

Over 40 percent of water utility workers are eligible to retire.

We need to do a better job recruiting and training for 21st century threats to the water utilities industry. 

Threats from pandemics yes, but also from cybersecurity and sabotage, which may be one of the biggest future threats to America’s environment in the coming years.

And we can reinvigorate the Superfund Program.

Roughly 16 percent of the U.S. population lives within 3 miles of a Superfund site today. That’s over 50 million Americans.

EPA has allowed litigation and bureaucracy to dictate the pace of Superfund projects, instead of focusing on improving the environmental indicators and moving sites to completion.

We need to fully implement the recommendations of the 2018 Superfund Task Force and reimagine the approach to clean up sites using the latest technologies and best practices.

Many of you may be familiar with that great British TV series “Yes, Minister,” where elected politicians who want to change things do battle with the British Civil Service, which wants things to stay the same.

And the Civil Service usually wins.

During one episode, the senior Civil Servant tells a Minister: “We don’t measure our success by results but by activity – and the activity is considerable and productive.”

That has become the historical problem with the Superfund Program, but it’s one that we can solve. 

We have focused too much on the activity and not on the success of getting the sites cleaned up.

We helped President Trump successfully implement the new NEPA regulations with the goal of reviewing federal permits within two years. 

Because of this, new permit bottlenecks will be at State-level agencies implementing federal program.

EPA has a unique opportunity to provide technical assistance and support timely permit reviews.

96 percent of water permitting authorities have been delegated to the states – and 48 states have the air program.

Going forward, when we renew state delegated programs, we won’t just look at their enforcement statistics, but also at their permitting programs.

We can improve the way we handle pesticide regulation. 

We do a good job approving pesticides on an individual basis, but we have not excelled in explaining to the public our holistic approach to pesticide management. 

The media and the courts tend to view our individual pesticide decisions in a one-off fashion, which has left the American public uninformed on our science-based process. 

We will take into account biotech advances and better examinations of new active ingredients. 

Just this week, we announced a proposed rule that would remove onerous and expensive regulation of gene-edited plant protectants. 

We will safeguard pollinators to support the agriculture industry.

And we can decrease reliance on animal testing to a point where no animal testing takes place for any of the agency’s programs by 2035. 

And I’m happy to say the current EPA leadership is already seizing the moment. 

Five Pillars
As I said before, the focus of the next 50 years cannot be like the last 50. This agency has proven it can protect human health and the environment. 

What it has not accomplished is reaching the environmental justice goals of fairness and good environmental outcomes that this country must achieve if it wants American communities to become better, healthier places to live.

Here are five things EPA is doing – five new pillars that have gone largely unnoticed by the public – that are changing the way the agency operates today.

  1. We are creating cost-benefit rules for every statute that governs EPA.
  2. We are creating science transparency rules that are applied consistently.
  3. We have already published new guidance policy procedures that brings all of our guidance documents to light.
  4. We have reorganized regional offices that make it much easier for community members to interact with the agency.
  5. And we’ve implemented the lean management system throughout the agency to improve the way we operate.

By making these changes, communities will be more empowered and able to take action; to work in concert and cooperation with EPA, and not interact in a confrontational or cowed manner.

The first pillar is our Cost-Benefit Rulemaking.

This is the first time the agency will define how to calculate the costs and benefits of proposed rules.

The American public deserves to know what the costs and the benefits are for each of our rules.

We are starting with the Clean Air Act, which will provide much better clarity to local communities, industry and stakeholders.

And we will implement a cost-benefit regulation for all our environmental statutes by 2022.

Our second major pillar is Science Transparency.

The American public has a right to know the scientific justification behind a regulation. This will bring much needed sunlight into our regulatory process.

Some people oppose it, calling it a Secret Science rule.

Those who oppose it want regulatory decisions to be made behind closed doors. They are the people who say, “Trust us, we know what’s best for you.”

I want to bring our environmental decision-making process out of the proverbial smoke-filled back room.

I cut my teeth working at EPA in the 1990s on the Community Right to Know program and I fundamentally believe that people have a right to know how our regulations are developed. 

The Cost-Benefit and Science Transparency rules will go a long way in delivering that.

After finalizing the Science Transparency rule later this year, EPA will conduct a statute by statue rulemaking, much like the Cost-Benefit rule.

Guidance documents are the third pillar of agency change, and it’s an area we’ve made a lot of progress, and we have shined even more light.

The agency for years was criticized for not making guidance documents – which have almost the force of law – available for public review. 

The costs involved to uncover guidance documents became a major barrier for anyone wanting to improve their communities.

Last year, EPA went through all our guidance documents from the agency’s beginnings, and we put all 10,000 documents onto a searchable database. 

We also rescinded 1,000 guidance documents. Now all our guidance documents are available to the public, for the first time.

This is a huge change in administrative procedures at EPA, perhaps the biggest change in at least a generation.

The fourth pillar is our reorganization of all 10 of our regional offices to mirror our headquarters structure. All the regional offices across the country now have an air division, a water division, a lands division, and a chemical division.

This was a change that was needed for decades.

As the fifth pillar of EPA fundamental change, we have implemented a Lean Management System that tracks real metrics with which the agency can measure success or failure.

There is a lot of good news in these changes, but the best news is this: the problems I’ve highlighted are structural, and when a problem is structural or organizational, an agency can be changed.

Until the Trump administration, EPA was not able to track how long it took to complete a permit, a grant process, or a state implementation plan, or really any meaningful task the agency had before it.

Organizations do change; it can be hard, but they do change, and when they change, it’s usually for the better.

As I said at the beginning, EPA data points to 2020 air quality being the best on record.

Here in California, where the modern environmental movement began – and from where President Nixon brought it to the rest of the country – it’s important to acknowledge the role states have in being laboratories for democracy, and in this case, laboratories for environmental policy.

But for environmental policy to work nationally, the federal government and states must work together as partners, not as adversaries.

To do this involves a new vision, and for a country searching for a new consensus, on the environment as well as on many other things, this can seem tough. 

But I believe we can find a new consensus, if we strive to.

Fifty years ago, when EPA was founded, the challenges before America on the environment, on economic fairness, and on foreign policy, were very large and difficult to overcome. 

But many of these challenges have been overcome, and even conquered.

Fifty years later, the issues are different, but still difficult. 

I believe that by focusing EPA toward communities in the coming years, our agency can change the future for people living in this country who have been left behind simply for living in polluted places.

Because if there is one thing that we all have in common as Americans – it’s that we all live in communities.

We are a nation made up of communities, and communities are the foundation of this nation, not the other way around.

If we can do the work before us – break down the silos between us as an agency and elsewhere – I believe we can both protect the places we love and bring back the places that have been hurt by pollution – and make them even better than they were before. 

I see EPA beginning its second half century with big challenges, but ones that can be overcome with the same skill and tenacity that helped this agency, and this country, overcome the challenges of the last 50 years.

I want to thank the Nixon Library for this great opportunity to speak before you today.

I hope everyone can support our agency as we work to deliver this vision of a great environmental future for all Americans – regardless of where they live.

Thank you.”