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Monday, April 28, 2014

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Remarks at the National Academy of Science, As Prepared

Washington, DC, April 28, 2014
I want to thank Dr. Cicerone for inviting me today.  It really is such an honor to speak to all of you.  By advancing science this institution has advanced our nation.  Last week we celebrated our 44th Earth Day, and we’ve come a long way. 
In 1946, a headline called the smog shrouding L.A “a dirty gray blanket flung across the city.”  L.A. was known as the pollution capital of the world.  School was cancelled for smog days, and Orange County seemed to get its name from the color of the sky.
But as pollution built, so did the pressure of millions calling for change.  It was a time for action.  In 1970, Richard Nixon signed an executive order to create the EPA, and Congress passed the Clean Air Act, paving the way for cleaner air and new technologies like the catalytic converter and smokestack scrubbers—American innovations that cut tail-pipe emissions, slashed power plant pollution, and changed the world.
Since that time, people have thought of EPA as a regulatory referee—leveling the playing field for public health and environmental protection.  But I want to talk to you about the rule book that guides us.  I want to talk about the bedrock science behind strong and sensible regulatory standards  the science behind lifesaving, landmark laws like the Clean Air Act.  It’s Air Quality Awareness Week, so why not focus on clean air?
Science continues to be the engine that drives America’s health, prosperity, and innovation—and pushes global progress.  And I’m proud to say that EPA has helped shape that progress for years.  Along the way, science has been our professor and our protector. 
Through science, we uncovered secondhand smoke’s deadly link to lung disease.  Through science, we’ve set health-based air quality standards that protect those most vulnerable — our children, our elderly, and our infirm.  Through science, we learned that toxic fumes from leaded gasoline harm our kids’ brain development—and we got the lead out.  And through science, we not only discovered the dangers of acid rain, we came up with a market-based solution to fix it.  
Today, smoking deaths are down.  Lead in our kids’ blood has plummeted.  And dangerous levels of all the pervasive air pollutants that harm our health and cause acid rain have been reduced by nearly 70%. 
When it comes to quality science that has supported the work of EPA and other federal agencies, the National Academy has been the gold standard.  Has it always been easy for us to hear what you’ve told us?  No.  But even when you’ve challenged us, your tough love has made us stronger.  And EPA counts on your science to guide our actions and gauge our progress. 
For example, we know certain chemicals can harm our bodies’ endocrine system, which is key to brain function and reproductive health.  Thanks to the Academy’s “Toxicity Testing” report, EPA scientists are turning the corner on chemical risk and safety—and positioning America to lead the world.  EPA scientists, working with folks across the public and private sector, are developing and using cutting-edge computational toxicology to slash testing timelines by as much as two-thirds—breathing new life into old statutes, saving money and potentially saving lives. 
Science untangles the complexity of toxicology so we can make progress even in the face of uncertainty.  When EPA puts chemical toxicity and safety data online, manufacturers, retailers and consumers pay attention—change happens. 
Science commands the basic need to test and treat drinking water, and it tells us how best to clean contaminated soil and how to keep our homes safe from radon and mold. And recently it has put a renewed focus on “green infrastructure” as a way to manage stormwater and protect drinking water– making our communities more livable and resilient.  And if you’ve ever wondered about the health of your local river or lake, thanks to EPA science, there’s an app for that.  Our award-winning “How’s My Waterway?” app puts that information at your fingertips.
The work we do together to preserve the integrity of our science is as critical as ever. 
That’s why President Obama nominated Dr. Tom Burke to run EPA’s Office of Research and Development.  And that’s why EPA is one of the few agencies to have a dedicated, full-time Scientific Integrity Official.  In everything we do, EPA relies on transparency, on rigorous peer review, and on robust, meaningful public comment.  The expert advice we get from our independent Science Advisory Board is a perfect example of that.  
With science as our North Star, EPA has steered America away from health risks, and toward healthier communities and a higher overall quality of life.  That’s why it’s worrisome that our science seems to be under constant assault by a small—but vocal—group of critics. 
Those critics conjure up claims of “EPA secret science,” but it’s not really about EPA science or secrets.  It’s about challenging the credibility of world-renowned scientists and institutions like Harvard University and the American Cancer Society.  It’s about claiming that research is secret if researchers protect confidential personal health data from those who are not qualified to analyze it—and won’t agree to protect it.  If EPA is being accused of “secret science” because we rely on real scientists to conduct research, and independent scientists to peer review it, and scientists who’ve spent a lifetime studying the science to reproduce it — then so be it! 
Those critics are playing a dangerous game by discrediting the sound science our families and our businesses depend on every day.  I bet when those same critics get sick, they run to doctors and hospitals that rely on science from—guess who—Harvard and the American Cancer Society.
I bet they check air quality forecasts from EPA and the national weather service—to see if the air is healthy enough for their asthmatic child to play outside.  I bet they buy dishwashers with Energy Star labels, and take FDA-approved medicine, and eat USDA-approved meats.  I don’t blame them!  People and businesses around the world look to EPA and other federal agencies because our science is reliable and our scientists are credible. 
But still—for some reason—those critics keep launching empty allegations at the work of experts without regard for the damage left behind.  Let me share one example.
A while back, the National Academy of Sciences recommended that EPA conduct limited studies with real people as participants — to better understand biological responses to different levels of air pollutants.  These studies were limited in duration—and only involved levels of pollution found in urban areas across the country.  They helped connect the dots in risk and exposure studies that inform ambient air quality standards. 
As you know, studies with real people are not new.  They happen in universities and industries nationwide.  That’s why there are protocols to follow to ensure the safety of participants – and EPA goes above and beyond them – with independent scientists evaluating the studies before, during and after. 
Safeguarding health is our top priority at EPA.  In spite of all the safeguards to ensure that no one was put in harm’s way, the scientists conducting these studies have been publicly vilified.  Their lives have been threatened, their property has been damaged, and they faced the risk that their facility would be shut down. How does that make sense? …When they were just doing their jobs as scientists – in the safest, most professional, most transparent way possible.  They were finding facts and laying them out for all to see.  These scientists have devoted their lives to making our lives better. 
My guess is that those critics who distrust the most trustworthy institutions—and vilify the work of reputable scientists and EPA—are not trying to provide scientific clarity.  My guess is that they’re looking to cloud the science with uncertainty—to keep EPA from doing the very job that Congress gave us to do. 
As scientists and public health professionals, we have an obligation to speak up when sound science is unfairly criticized, just as we have an obligation to question science that is truly secret.
To those calling EPA untrustworthy and unpopular—newsflash!  People like us.  They want safe drinking water.  They want healthy air.  And they expect us to follow the science—just as the law demands.  And to those failing to see the need to fund scientific research, tell that to Google, built by a couple of students empowered by a national science foundation grant.  Don’t believe me? Just Google it! 
People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.  You can’t just claim the science isn’t real when it doesn’t align well with your political or financial interests.  Science is real and verifiable.  With the health of our families and our futures at stake, the American people expect us to act on the facts, not spend precious time and taxpayer money refuting manufactured uncertainties.
And what about the worn-out argument that science-driven policies come with unbearable economic costs? Well that just doesn’t jive with the facts.  The truth is: science has supported regulations, policies and programs that have been good for public health, our planet, and our pocketbooks; for consumers and companies. 
If you own a TV or refrigerator, you’ve probably heard of our ENERGY STAR program.  Eight in ten Americans recognize our efficiency labels.  ENERGY STAR has saved families and businesses billions of dollars on utility bills, and billions of tons of greenhouse gases.  And without our analysis to guarantee savings, ENERGY STAR is just a fancy blue sticker.  But infuse it with the power of science—and that little label helps save the planet. 
Our science delivers certainty to businesses and keeps our competitive edge sharp on the global stage.  From smoke-stack scrubbers to catalytic converters, America inspires and innovates the world’s leading pollution control technologies, accounting for more than 1.5 million jobs and $44 billion in exports in 2008 alone.  That’s more than other big U.S. sectors like plastics and rubber products. 
Let’s keep putting our faith in American ingenuity and innovation and the scientific research that makes them possible.  The great thing is our environmental laws recognize the need to cultivate that innovation.
The bottom line is: we have never—nor will we ever—sacrifice a healthy economy for a healthy environment. 
We have decades of progress to prove it.  In total, while the Clean Air Act cut air pollution by nearly 70%, the economy more than doubled.  In the 1960s, critics said the catalytic converter would put the brakes on auto production.  But guess what?  It didn’t.  Instead, cars got cleaner and air got healthier.  In the 1990s, critics said amendments to the Clean Air Act would dismantle manufacturing.  But guess what?  They didn’t.  Instead, by 2020 the benefits of those amendments will outweigh costs 30 to 1.  Today, science has driven us toward historic fuel economy standards that are doubling how far our cars go on a gallon of gas, slashing carbon pollution, and saving families money at the pump, all while fueling a resurgent American auto industry.
When we follow the science, we all win.  This country and the world move forward. 
And today: the need to follow the science—and the risks of ignoring it—are crystal clear.  Just look at the threat of climate change.  From more frequent and intense heat waves, droughts, floods, and storms, to more smog and asthma, climate change has put our health and economic risks on steroids.
Using the best science we have to offer, our next U.S. National Climate Assessment is about to be finalized.  From coastal cities to the Great Plains, we have to use that science to prepare and to plan—just like we use the science on mercury, acid rain, ozone pollution, particulate matter and more.
To reduce the risks that threaten our health and safety, we need to listen to climate science.  We cannot let those same critics of science continue to manufacture uncertainties that stop us from taking urgently needed climate action.   
If 97 out of 100 doctors said you were really sick,I’d say it’s pretty risky to go with the 3 that didn’t.  Climate evidence is clear—Arctic sea ice is receding to new lows.  Seas are rising to new highs.  And the cost of inaction is escalating: 2012 was a historically expensive year for disasters, with a price tag of $110 billion dollars.  Climate extremes impact insurance premiums, property taxes, food prices, medical bills, and more. 
The Academy was right to point out that collective climate risk amounts to an overdose of across-the-board risk: to our health, our economy, our environment, and our security.  This is what the science tells us – climate change is not the product of conspiracies or political agendas. 
And if there’s one thing we know with 100% certainty, it’s that denial and inaction are the biggest dangers of all.
That’s why the President’s climate action plan to cut carbon pollution and prepare for climate impacts is so critical.   And EPA will deliver our pieces of that plan, without fail. 
You know, we’ve made a lot of progress since the days of the first Earth Day when burning rivers and clouds of smog were “in-your-face” threats.  But in many ways, the challenges we face today are more complex and more threatening than ever before.  And to fight these challenges we can’t rely on the technologies and programs of the past. 
If we want America to lead the 21st century, we have to look to science to carve new paths forward.
Decades ago, the National Academy helped EPA build the template we now use to look at health risks.  And today, you’re helping us weave sustainability into that template because we can no longer afford to fight environmental threats media-by-media or solely rely on the tools and programs that brought us this far.   
And thankfully, in the digital age, information is still power – just like it was in the 1960s.  Today we can gather and disseminate information like never before.  EPA and state regulators are no longer the only “boots on the ground” to fight pollution.  Technology has empowered people.  That’s what EPA’s Next-Gen program is all about.  We have continuous emission monitors on our smokestacks, and handheld devices that can provide real-time data—cheaply and reliably.  These technologies are changing the way we do business—and the way businesses do business.
For example, in my home town, in Boston’s Charles River, we plan to use state-of-the-art solar technology to post real-time water quality data online.  And recently, EPA engineers and scientists have found a way to develop and analyze data from inexpensive fence-line air-monitoring technology, giving us the potential to provide much more up to date data. 
These data help us and our industries ensure compliance.  And more importantly, they help families living in the shadow of large industries sleep better at night.  That’s what I call environmental justice.   
Does that mean we don’t need EPA boots on the ground? No way.  But it does mean that electronic data and new technologies expand our ability to hold polluters accountable and to engage more diverse communities in our collective effort to protect public health and the environment.   
In fact, our ability to collect and deliver data has literally reached the space age.  We’re teaming up with NASA to use a “hyperspectral imager” mounted on the International Space Station to examine coastal water quality like we’ve never done before.  One day, we hope to be able to forecast water quality on a daily basis.
Today, the risks we face are different.  The solutions we craft must also be different.  But just like it was decades ago, that same call to action is loud and clear.  Our commitment to science must remain strong. 
You know, in the years leading up to the first Earth Day, California Governor Jerry Brown said we’ve “hit the moon with a rocket, and can take close-up photos of Mars. Certainly [we] can produce a device that will mean cleaner air for California.”  Well that’s exactly what we did.  Science is how we turned “cutting edge” into “commonplace.”  It’s how we swept away much of L.A.’s haze. 
Progress built on science has defined EPA’s success and delivered a safer and healthier environment to the American people. 
But there is much work left to be done.  As we take action to reduce carbon pollution and make our communities more resilient in the face of a changing climate, let’s keep speaking up for the leading role of science in America’s continuing story of progress.
I know I speak for everyone at EPA—and people all across America—when I say thank you for all you have done for me and my family.   Your work is the cornerstone of a better future—and we’re counting on you now more than ever before. 
Thanks again for having me.

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