Top EPA Administrator Offers Plain Speaking and Practical Advice

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Gina McCarthy

In a speech and very practical conversation with UW public health, policy, and environmental students and faculty, Gina McCarthy, top Administrator for the US Environmental Protection Agency, exhorted students to learn “how to communicate to people about why what we do matters," and to stop using terms such as “risk reduction.” The science is key, but you have to talk about it in human terms, she said.

Ms. McCarthy described herself as a public health person, from a public health background. “The EPA IS a public health agency, one of the premier in the world. We stop people from being sick, we save lives.”

Her key points:

  • The Clean Air Act is a great success because it puts everyone on the hook to be responsible and it drives technological innovation;
  • Two crucial issues for her are children’s health, especially prenatal exposure to toxins in the environment (“We got the lead out of gasoline, but not out of kids’ blood”) and helping vulnerable communities, which often requires a multi-agency effort since the issues, such as food deserts and housing, go beyond what the EPA regulates;
  • Look more holistically at climate change, which connects all disciplines. Bring solutions that will continue to allow people to put food on the table and grow jobs;
  • The lead issue in Flint, MI, was about money; Flint had not invested in their water distribution system in decades.
  • No matter the polarization in DC and the political rhetoric, “when people in a legislator’s district have an environmental problem, they are calling us, not ghostbusters;”
  • One of her biggest jobs is putting in place strong career staff throughout the EPA, so the agency will continue to move ahead despite changes in Congress and the Presidency. She also encouraged students to come work for the EPA when they graduate;
  • The EPA currently offers unpaid internships, but she is considering offering paid internships, to diversify the pool of applicants and not disadvantage those who cannot afford to go without pay;
  • To students about to graduate: “Do not pigeonhole yourself. If opportunities come, take them, work them, network;” and, “Never take a job you think you can do. Stretch every single time."