Our nation’s environmental progress over the last 30 years is a success story that we should all be proud of because our partnership is at the center of it.

Working together, we’ve cleaned up the wastewater from hundreds of American communities and rehabilitated hazardous waste sites all across the country. We’ve improved the quality of the water in the nation’s lakes, rivers and streams. Air quality is better in almost every urban area.

The American people today enjoy better health and more productive ecosystems, and our partnership is largely responsible. What’s more, we cleaned up the environment while the population grew and the economy expanded at a breathtaking pace. We have achieved much at home, and we have much to offer the rest of the world.

Our partnership has been in place from the very beginning. Many federal environmental laws included a prominent role for the states, primarily through the delegation of the primary authority for implementing programs to states and tribes.

Today, states have assumed authority for approximately 70 percent of the EPA programs eligible for delegation. Much of that delegation took place in the middle years of this decade, which is testimony, I might add, to the Clinton administration’s solid commitment to the federal/state partnership. At the EPA today, we are well aware of how much we depend on you for the rigorous implementation of federally legislated programs.

But over time, our partnership has evolved far beyond our shared responsibilities as co-regulators. Your capabilities are much broader than the authorities passed onto you from the EPA. In some ways, in fact, you’ve become stronger than we are.

…We all have a responsibility to build on our record of accomplishment no matter who is in office next January, and I’d like to suggest a few ways that we might do that.

First, we’ve got to continue down the path of innovation at both the federal and state levels. Uniform national regulations aren’t going to disappear. They’ll be the solid bedrock of our environmental protection programs well into the foreseeable future. But we have to improve the traditional system so that it’s simpler, more streamlined and less expensive to administer. With vision and common sense, tomorrow’s regulatory system will operate in a fundamentally different way.

We’ve already begun that process of innovation at the state and federal levels, and our partnership has been a major force sustaining innovation. Project XL [which allows states and businesses to work with the EPA to develop flexible, cost-effective ways to achieve environmental goals] is one of the ways that we’re experimenting with cheaper, smarter, cleaner regulations at the EPA. Two of our 30 XL Projects involve state governments in Massachusetts and New York, and a third is under development in New Jersey.

The EPA/State Regulatory Innovations Agreement is another major vehicle for improving the current system. This agreement creates a new way for the EPA and the states to use the flexibility available in existing regulations to test new ideas that promise lower costs and less red tape while assuring a consistent level of environmental protection nationwide.

It took us awhile to get started, but we have already approved eight of these state-level innovations, and three are under way. Eight more are coming right behind them. I am confident that the EPA and the states will continue their ambitious agenda of innovations into the future because of the promise it holds for both the economy and the environment.

The second major area of federal/state partnership that I hope we continue to build on in the future is our groundbreaking voluntary programs with the private sector.

Many companies today understand that good environmental and economic performance are not mutually exclusive. They also realize that there’s a lot to be gained by doing more than the law requires. Better community relations, improved worker health and reduced liability are just some of the advantages of improved corporate stewardship.

The EPA has been working hard to encourage and reward corporate environmental stewardship, and so have the states. In June, we announced our most ambitious voluntary initiative to date: Performance Track. This program is designed to encourage and motivate exemplary environmental performance by facilities and companies. The EPA intends to reward exemplary performance with improved regulatory flexibility and public recognition.

As Performance Track evolves, I can foresee an approach to rule-making where companies that meet certain performance criteria would get regulatory relief from the requirements of the rule. This could be a tremendous motivation for businesses to ramp up their environmental management systems to where they could quality for relief. They benefit, and the environment benefits. In the years ahead, I think the Performance Track and state counterparts will transform the EPA as it encourages and supports change in the private sector.

As the EPA develops the second tier of Performance Track over the next several months, I hope our state partners will continue to share insights, ideas and constructive criticism with us.

In the decades ahead, many American corporations are going to carry their environmental performance to heights that were unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago. With manufacturing process changes, greater recycling and reuse of materials, and radical innovations in automobiles and electricity generation — to name just a few — the private sector could very well change the way we do business, not only in America but around the world. Through our federal/state partnership, we must continue to nurture corporate environmental stewardship in every possible way.

The third major area of our partnership that has improved a great deal, and should continue to improve in the future, is our management and integration of environmental data. No one doubts any more the power of information as a tool for protecting the environment. The American people not only have a right to know about pollution in their communities, they have shown every indication that they will act on that knowledge.

We have a joint responsibility to better inform community action with better environmental data, data that is more extensive, more understandable, more usable and more accessible, and we’re fulfilling that responsibility as partners. Our State/EPA Information Management Workgroup is already up and running, and it’s already getting results. We’ve developed a vision statement and a set of operating principles, and established a joint process for reducing data-reporting burdens.

But we’ve got a lot more to do. We have to continue our momentum in improving data quality, reducing burden, expanding access and leveraging resources. In particular, we have to develop a national environmental information exchange network that is well-integrated and meets all of our needs. That’s a large order, but it’s already well begun. Our challenge will be to continue this important work through the transition ahead. In particular, I’d like to thank ECOS for its strong support of our efforts to increase the Federal/State investment in this area.

Finally, in the years ahead, I hope we can further strengthen our federal/state partnership whenever environmental legislation is reauthorized. In my view, reauthorization should involve the rethinking and re-evaluation that lead to more effective laws — laws that need to adjust to the changes we’ve seen.

In our innovative programs at the EPA, we’ve pushed the limits of the law about as far as we can go. Those laws have served us well in the past, but it’s time for them to change, too. The Clean Air Act hasn’t changed in 10 years, the Clean Water Act in 13, Superfund in 14.

Our country needs to engage in a broad public dialogue about our environmental statutes, a dialogue that addresses new and emerging environmental challenges and incorporates the lessons we’ve learned from a decade of innovation. In light of the much-improved environmental capabilities of state governments, I would hope that reauthorization would lead to even more flexibility for innovation, and give states more of a voice in the design and implementation of environmental programs.

I am not suggesting here that the federal presence in environmental protection should be diminished. A strong EPA role has been critical to our progress in the past, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t be equally important in the future.

The EPA will continue to set national standards, especially in terms of human health. The EPA will continue to ensure a level playing field. The EPA will continue to fund research and development that can be used by states and communities everywhere in the country. The EPA, of course, will take the lead in addressing international environmental issues, and facilitating issues when the interests of different states are at odds.

Moreover, there should continue to be a unique role for the EPA’s regional offices — they’re your strongest advocates. They must continue to provide technical assistance tailored to their respective states, and help to ensure that the EPA’s oversight of environmental programs recognizes the unique problems and capabilities of individual states.

Yet there can be little doubt that a broad national rethinking of federal environmental statutes should weigh the expanded budgets and more sophisticated capabilities of states.

States have a far better understanding of local environmental conditions, local politics, and local economics than the EPA could hope to have, or needs to have. Your employees are as knowledgeable as ours, and your commitment to environmental protection runs as deep as ours. We have more in common than ever before.