EPA comes out swinging against ‘covert propaganda’ charge

By Kevin Bogardus | 12/18/2015 01:11 PM EST

Article updated at 5 p.m. EST.

U.S. EPA will not shrink from social media after the Government Accountability Office found its promotion of the agency’s controversial water rule violated federal limits on lobbying and propaganda.

In a blog post yesterday, Liz Purchia, EPA’s acting associate administrator for public affairs, took apart the GAO decision and defended the agency’s use of Twitter and other online tools to promote its work.

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"It’s almost 2016. One of the most effective ways to share information is via the Internet and social media. Though backward-thinkers might prefer it, we won’t operate as if we live in the Stone Age. EPA wants American citizens to know what we’re up to. We want to be as transparent as possible. We want to engage diverse constituents in our work. And we want them to be informed. Social media is a powerful tool to do that," Purchia said.

She said that opponents of EPA are looking to use the GAO legal opinion on EPA’s campaign for the Waters of the U.S. rule to derail its work on the Clean Power Plan, which will reduce power plants’ carbon emissions.

"The latest attempt cites EPA’s public communications about providing clean water to the American people as cause to investigate EPA’s use of social media around our Clean Power Plan — an essential rule to fight climate change by cutting carbon pollution from power plants," Purchia said. "Their goal is to create a buzz around our social media use and draw attention away from the important work to take real action to improve our nation’s waterways and reduce carbon pollution that threatens the health of all Americans."

On Monday, GAO dealt a blow to EPA when it found its use of certain online tools — such as Thunderclap, which amplifies social media messages — constituted "covert propaganda." In addition, the watchdog office found that the agency was not in line with anti-lobbying restrictions when it linked to outside groups that were making appeals to lawmakers and the public (E&ENews PM, Dec. 14).

That ruling by GAO has become fodder for EPA’s critics. In a letter sent yesterday to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, top Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee demanded that the agency account for its social media promotion of the power plant carbon rule (Greenwire, Dec. 17).

Many on Capitol Hill would like to limit EPA’s outreach efforts. On Wednesday, Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.) introduced H.R. 4271, a bill that would prohibit EPA from spending money on contracts for public relations or market research.

Purchia, in her blog post, poked holes in the GAO ruling that has helped fuel attacks on the agency, saying of "100 social media posts reviewed by the GAO," only two posts were challenged, "and the case against them is tenuous."

She noted that the agency didn’t conceal its drafting of its message on Thunderclap.

"We created a page on Thunderclap, labeled clearly, right up top, with our logo and the byline, ‘by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,’" Purchia said. "It linked to an EPA website with information about the rule. We shared this page with all of our stakeholders — no matter what sector, geographic location, or perspective — with the goal of catalyzing our public engagement process, and getting people excited about the importance of clean water."

Purchia added, "The GAO also cited EPA’s use of an external hyperlink in a blog post as evidence that we violated anti-lobbying provisions. This link went to a blog about surfers and how they are impacted by pollution. It was written in 2010, four years before our Clean Water Rule even existed. We appreciate the GAO’s consideration of these matters, but respectfully disagree."

The watchdog office didn’t question EPA’s use of social media in its legal opinion but rather if the agency was fully identifying itself to the public, according to a spokesman.

"The legal opinion doesn’t question EPA’s mission, its overall use of social media or the substance of the rulemaking. What it does say is that a federal agency is required by law, no matter the communications tool, to identify itself to the public as the source of such communications," said Chuck Young, a spokesman for GAO.

Purchia said EPA never urged the public to contact federal or state lawmakers when it came to the water regulation.

"At no point did the EPA encourage the public to contact Congress or any state legislature about the Clean Water Rule. Plain and simple. The rule is an agency action, promulgated by EPA. It’s not even about congressional legislation," Purchia said.

Purchia said the agency stands by its social media use and called criticism of the water rule campaign an "empty attack."

"EPA won’t back down from our mission. We stand by our public outreach efforts on both the Clean Water Rule and the Clean Power Plan. Unfortunately, valuable time and resources are being wasted on empty attacks. The public would be better served without these deliberate distractions, and with full attention focused on meeting our mission to protect the health of kids and families, and ensure our shared environment is clean and safe," Purchia said.

Reporter Tiffany Stecker contributed.

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