EPA-Funded “What’s Upstream” Campaign Hit With PDC Complaint By Farmers

EPA-Funded
A farming group has filed a formal complaint with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission alleging unreported political activity by EPA sub-grantees who were working to improve water quality. Photo: John R.

The Washington State Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) this week began investigating allegations by farmers that a taxpayer-funded public education campaign called “What’s Upstream” engaged in political lobbying activity without making required spending reports. The program was funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It also involved the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NIFC), and was managed by the Swinomish Tribe.

Additional Developments

Meanwhile, although the “What’s Upstream” website is considerably toned down, as of this week it still included a key link to a document containing a legislative advocacy agenda. In a related development, U.S. lawmakers this week pressed the EPA to follow through on a pledge to better police EPA public education efforts.

“What’s Upstream” claimed that unregulated farming activity is harming the state’s waterways and salmon habitat. The campaign put up billboards with misleading statements and pictures, and its website included an “action button” so that grass roots advocates could urge Washington legislators to support related legislation.

PDC Complaint Filed By Farming Group

James Tupper Jr., Attorney for Whatcom County-based Save Family Farming (SFF), sent a formal complaint to the PDC last week asserting “What’s Upstream” did illegal unregistered lobbying to influence lawmakers.

SFF is a nonprofit formed to respond to “What’s Upstream” allegations of poor environmental stewardship by agriculture. The organization details at its website and in published commentaries the role farmers take in protecting Washington’s natural resources.

“It should have been disclosed to the people of Washington years ago” that Swinomish Tribe Environmental Policy Director Larry Wasserman “and EPA were intending to deploy $655,000 in federal grant funding on a grass roots campaign to enact new laws and regulations in our state,” wrote Tupper.

Seeking Remedies

Tupper urged PDC to register the campaign, obtain required documentation and file penalties for “blatant violations of state law.”

Even though the EPA has suspended funding for “What’s Upstream,” the website remains online and “continues to call for new state laws regarding streamside buffers,” Tupper added.  Marty Loesch, a former attorney for the Swinomish, told the Skagit Valley Herald this month that “nothing on the website points to legislation.”

Legislative Agenda Still Evident Via Site

The “What’s Upstream” website is now more low-key than it previously was, on proposed legislative solutions. However, it currently includes a link to a 155-page research paper by the Western Law Environmental Center (WLEC) titled “Agricultural Pollution in Puget Sound,” which clearly advocates (pp.79-81) for new state and federal legislative action.  

The paper says the state should authorize “additional statutory authority” for the Department of Ecology to advance “specific science-based” practices to “prevent pollution, protect water quality, and restore salmon and shellfish habitat.”

The paper also calls for repealing a confidentiality provision of the Washington Public Records Act relating to farm plans, and advocates Ecology “utilize its rulemaking authority” to develop “regulation(s) mandating compliance” with water quality best practices.

The WLEC treatise also urges repeal of Section 1619 of the federal Farm Bill, to boost Puget Sound salmon recovery.

“Take Action” Button, Billboards Caused Stir

To promote mandatory 100-foot buffers between streams and agricultural land, the “What’s Upstream” online ad program was launched on October 24, 2013. On October 31, 2015, the campaign’s new website was launched with a “Take Action” button, promising it would send a letter to “various Washington senators whose votes we hope to influence.”

In January, Washington House Representatives introduced legislation for riverbank barriers but it stalled in the Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee.

Over the following months, the campaign released ads on a number of platforms including billboards in Olympia and Bellingham. The billboards claimed “unregulated agriculture is putting our waterways at risk” and used pictures of cows standing in dirty streams. Although the billboards implied a Washington state setting, the pictures were taken from an online stock photo titled, “Amish Country cows cooling off in stream.”

“To say that agriculture is unregulated is ridiculous,” Gerald Baron, Executive Director of SFF, told Lens. “That was just the tip of the iceberg in the types of claims and distortions made on the campaign.”

The campaign’s supporters were “clear in the campaign materials submitted to EPA for the review that their intention was to pass legislation” but they “never registered it as a lobbying campaign,” said Baron.

No Response On Promised Local Probe

Last May, EPA’s Northwest Region Policy Advisor Bill Dunbar told Lens the agency was directing the grant recipient, Olympia-based NIFC, to fully review the Puget Sound restoration sub-grant it made to the Swinomish. Asked about progress on that probe, Dunbar this week declined to answer and referred inquiries to NIFC. Tony Meyer, NIFC Division Manager, declined comment and referred inquiries to Wasserman, of the Swinomish Tribe. Attempts to reach Wasserman were unsuccessful.

Wasserman earlier defended the campaign, saying the agriculture and forestry sectors needed increased regulation to make Washington state waterways “fishable, swimmable and drinkable.”

Congressional Members Renew Call For EPA Fixes

Ongoing concerns around “What’s Upstream” were also evident this week in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington (R-4) on Tuesday headed up a letter sent to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. It underscored their concerns that EPA “put in place” protections “to ensure grant funds are not misused in this manner in the future.”

They requested a briefing on the agency’s review of the “What’s Upstream” campaign, which follows a pledge by McCarthy five months ago to develop better practices.

The lawmakers wrote they “are growing increasingly concerned about EPA’s use of taxpayer dollars” because of prior, similar findings on EPA conduct by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which were “followed so closely by the revelation of misuse of funds to lobby state legislators through the ‘What’s Upstream’ campaign.”

The letter concluded with a request of McCarthy to respond in writing by September 30.

Baron told Lens that SFF wants to make sure those responsible for the violations are held accountable. He added SFF will continue to do its own public education on “what farmers are doing to protect the environment.”

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