Tanya Lee
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy answers questions with Harvard Law School professor Richard Lazarus at her first public address since being chosen to head the federal agency.

New EPA Head Wants Environmental Justice & Economic Development

Tanya Lee
August 06, 2013

The themes of environmental justice and economic development by way of getting greener top the list of priorities for Gina McCarthy, the new administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“I have no intention of leaving behind the environmental justice communities,” newly minted EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told a 300-plus audience at Harvard Law School on July 30 in her first public address since being confirmed by the Senate two weeks earlier.

"Those are exactly the same communities that will bear the brunt of a changing climate,” she said. “We can't just rely on national rules to get the average up. We need to look at who is not winning in this equation."

For instance, she said, there’s the matter of assisting people in poorer communities living on the coast, since they cannot simply pick up and move when the sea rises, as their more affluent counterparts have the option of doing.

"We need to work with those communities first to deliver some of the toxic reductions we need in those communities and then work with them to ensure that they remain as resilient [to climate change] as we can get them," she said.

Citing President Barack Obama's June speech at Georgetown University in which he committed to dealing aggressively with climate change, she reaffirmed the priorities he had set forth.

RELATED: Obama: No Keystone XL if It Increases Carbon Emissions

"The President told us to reduce pollution from the power sector,” she said, with plans that tackle what new facilities should look like as well as complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants. "And that is exactly what we want to do."

Moreover, the water portion of the climate change challenge has already arrived and is the most critical, she said.

"Water is a limited, precious resource,” McCarthy said. “In a changing climate with floods over here and droughts over there, sometimes in the same state, you're going to end up with water challenges. We are at risk of losing our ability to deliver clean drinking water."

The Navajo Generating Station was another hot topic. When it comes to limiting emissions from the 2,250-MW Navajo Generating Station on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona—one of the dirtiest coal-based power plants in the western U.S.— McCarthy said that she is more interested in public health impacts than in regional haze, which formed the basis of lawsuits brought against that power plant. She said she had visited the power plant and met with leaders of the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe and the Gila River Indian Community, all whom will be affected by whatever happens at Navajo Generating Station.

RELATED: Coming Clean: Historic Agreement Reached for Navajo Generating Station

The EPA has directed the owners of Navajo Generating Station—the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Salt River Project, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, Arizona Public Service, Nevada Power, and Tucson Electric Power—to comply with Clean Air Act legal mandates. The agency in February proposed a rule under which the owners would be required to install high-priced Selective Catalytic Reduction technology on each of the plant's three units in order to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. The EPA invited alternative proposals because of the plant’s importance to the regional economy. Besides producing the electricity used by the Central Arizona Project to transport the Colorado River water that supports American Indian communities, it is crucial to the development of cities such as Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

McCarthy said the agency would not sacrifice tribal water supplies to meet its obligations to reduce haze at national parks. The proposed agreement submitted to the EPA by the Technical Working Group, which included the tribes, the Interior Department, NGS owners and other interested parties, would shut down one of the plant's three 750-MW units, install technology to limit NOx emissions by 2030 and end the use of coal to fuel the plant by 2044.

EPA must still approve the proposal, but McCarthy said the developmental process could serve as a model for EPA dealings with other entities. 

"I am proud of the work we did to get this far,” she said. “We can use this as an example of how to deal with our public in a way that serves their interests and meets our legal obligations."

McCarthy distanced the EPA from any discussion about the impending Keystone XL pipeline decision, offering no more clarity than the President about what the State Department might decide.

"The administration is really carefully looking … at the environmental impacts associated with the Keystone pipeline,” she said. “The best EPA can do is to continue to be an honest commentator on the environmental impact statement [for the project]. EPA does not have all the answers."

McCarthy said she favors capturing and selling the methane unleashed by fracking in the Bakken oil fields as a method of cleaning up the environment while benefitting the economy.

This was a theme throughout her remarks, as McCarthy stressed that cleaning up the environment did not mean holding back the economy. There is "no inherent conflict between the environment and the economy," she said.

"It's not a choice between the health of our children and the health of the economy,” she said. “Climate change is not an environmental issue, it's a fundamental economic issue. We need to embrace cutting carbon pollution as a way to spark business innovation. We need to cut carbon pollution to grow jobs. We need to cut carbon pollution to strengthen the economy."