WASHINGTON, April 24, 2017 – EPA grant money used for a clean water campaign targeting farmers was spent properly, the agency’s Office of Inspector General concluded in a report released today.
Some of the money went for billboards in Washington state that said “Unregulated agriculture is putting our waterways at risk” and featured a web address – http://www.whatsupstream.com– where visitors could contact state legislators to voice their concerns.
But when the news broke that EPA was helping fund the “What’s Upstream?” campaign, farmers and their allies in Congress protested. Fully a third of the House of Representatives sent a letter to then-EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy objecting to the grant, which was made to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC). Sens. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairmen of the Senate Environment and Public Works and Agriculture committees, respectively, asked for an investigation, saying they were “troubled to learn that EPA’s financial assistance appears to improperly fund an advocacy campaign in Washington state that unfairly targets and demonizes farmers and ranchers.”
At an EPW hearing in April 2016, McCarthy said she was “distressed about the use of the money and the tone of the campaign” and said the agency had stopped reimbursing NWIFC, which received about $433,000 to fund the campaign.
But the OIG said that the awarding of the grant and the use of money for the campaign did not violate anti-lobbying prohibitions, even though it called for legislation imposing buffer requirements on farmland.
“The campaign did not seemingly encourage action related to any pending or proposed Washington state legislative matter,” the report said. “The ‘What’s Upstream?’ website suggested that citizens forward an attached form letter to Washington state elected officials.”
The letter “generally supported the goal of clean water, and specifically suggested that the state legislature should start paying attention to the need for ‘buffers between agriculture lands and streams,’” but did not refer to “any proposed or pending legislative action,” the OIG said.
Interpreting the law “as narrowly as possible, there appears to be no violation” by the campaign, the report said.
Whether there was a legal violation or not, however, EPW spokesman Mike Danylak said, “EPA should be focused on protecting the nation's water, air, and land, instead of spending taxpayer dollars for anti-farming PR campaigns.”
Roberts similarly criticized EPA. “I’m pleased the IG report is complete. However, just because something is found to be legal does not mean it is the right thing to do. For a federal agency to award grants that demonize an industry and promote anti-agriculture billboards and bus signs, EPA clearly had a malicious intent. I’m hopeful that this administration’s EPA will have more trust in the hard-working farmers and ranchers who have the utmost respect for the land and natural resources.”
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., also issued a statement, saying that the OIG report “appears to wrongly conclude” that the campaign “did not attempt to sway lawmakers and the public when it used federal dollars, as well as inaccurate information, blatantly deceptive images, and other misleading propaganda, to lobby for new state regulations creating mandatory buffers aimed at farmers.”
Newhouse said he would “evaluate all available legislative options to tighten requirements governing federally-funded grants so that no technical loophole allows farmers or anyone else to be targets of taxpayer-funded lobbying campaigns.”
A House Agriculture Committee spokesperson said that while Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, "is pleased the EPA OIG found the agency chose not to reimburse the tribe for costs associated with the most troubling 'What’s Upstream' advertisements, the fact remains that EPA did provide at least partial funding for a campaign whose primary goal was attacking farmers. The committee looks forward to working with the new administration to ensure that EPA is not tied to such troubling advocacy campaigns."
The OIG compared the activities in the “What’s Upstream?” campaign to activities EPA undertook to promote its “Waters of the U.S.” rule that the Government Accountability Office found to be violations against grass-roots lobbying.
“The EPA reviewed the ‘What’s Upstream?’ material . . . and made suggestions intended to soften the tone of the message, but it did not create the message,” the OIG said. “This is not a case where, like the facts in the GAO opinion, the EPA developed the message and used the entity to provide information without attribution to the EPA.”
For more news, go to www.Agri-Pulse.com