Lawmakers fume over EPA-funded ads seeking pollution controls

By Marc Heller | 04/21/2016 07:20 AM EDT

New laws or regulations cracking down on U.S. EPA’s funding of environmental advocacy campaigns make good politics but probably won’t do much to discourage the practice, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee said yesterday.

"That might be good theater, but I’m not sure it helps in that regard," Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) told reporters, as he and other lawmakers responded to EPA funding of an ad campaign in Washington state that blamed "unregulated" agriculture for polluting waterways.

Conaway and Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) told reporters in a conference call that they’ll await a report by the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General — which they and other leading lawmakers have demanded — before suggesting solutions to the ad campaign, which they called a clear violation of laws against federal agencies funding advocacy.


"Let’s let the facts on the ground determine the solutions," Conaway said.

At issue is EPA’s awarding of a grant to Indian tribes that used it to finance What’s Upstream, an advertising campaign in Washington state that urges increased pollution-related regulation of agriculture. The campaign includes billboards and a website, among other features.

Since news reports revealed the connection, EPA has said the grantee — a consortium of tribes — shouldn’t have used the funds in that fashion. The grant was originally given in connection with salmon protection.

Conaway and Newhouse said they were especially miffed that the same EPA Region 10 office had been warned in 2014 by the OIG that its programs weren’t sufficiently protected to ensure funds were kept away from advocacy, propaganda or lobbying.

The agency has said it inadvertently didn’t check fully into the What’s Upstream campaign, whose website describes its activities. And while the website describes in detail the campaign’s support of 100-foot buffer zones between farms and waterways, for instance, the agency has said it didn’t appear to endorse specific legislation.

Newhouse called the EPA funding "an intentional violation of the law" against government funding of advocacy campaigns.

The law allows use of EPA funds, for instance, for public education. "This, for us, crossed a bright line," he said.

The lawmakers were among a group of 145 lawmakers who wrote a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy yesterday expressing "extreme concern" over the funding. Among other worries, they said, the ad campaign came as Washington state lawmakers and regulators were weighing changes to water pollution regulations that could affect concentrated animal feeding operations.