Concerns Deepen On EPA’s Campaign Targeting Washington State Agriculture

Concerns Deepen On EPA's Campaign Targeting Washington State Agriculture
Concerns are mounting about who knew what and when about an EPA-funded campaign targeting Washington agriculture. Seen here: a farmhouse near Waterville, Washington. Photo: Scott Butner.

Months before it was under heavy fire and halted funding of a tribal consortium’s “What’s Upstream” campaign targeting Washington agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knew the taxpayer-funded effort would engage in state political lobbying. A pending and now-amended formal complaint to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission by farmers seeks to determine if that was illegal. It is not the first time the agency has appeared to cross the line from public education into unregistered lobbying.

The latest revelations come via a public records request by a Whatcom County-based farming advocacy group and a trade newspaper. Meanwhile, the Washington State Department of Agriculture is publicly condemning the What’s Upstream campaign for spreading disinformation harmful to Washington farmers.

A newly surfaced e-mail shows EPA staff knew about the true intention of the What’s Upstream campaign as early as December 2, 2015. This is four-and-a-half-months prior to when EPA stopped financially supporting the effort.

‘Send A Message..To…Legislators’

EPA grant awardee Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC), the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and other proponents of the campaign stated in a December 2015 e-mail they would be relaunching “What’s Upstream” for six months “just in time for the start of the 2016 legislative session.” The signers also indicate the campaign’s website included a “tool where concerned residents can send a message to their legislators urging action on this critical but neglected issue.”

Through such explicit plans and public directives to contact state legislators, “What’s Upstream” sought to implement 100-foot stream-side buffers on farmland to further control potential water pollution.

Gina Bonifacino, Senior Program Specialist of EPA Puget Sound Program, forwarded the December 2015 e-mail to three other EPA staff within EPA Region 10 including Lisa Chang, EPA’s Puget Sound Intergovernmental Coordinator. Chang replied, saying she discussed the topic with Swinomish Tribe Environmental Policy Director Larry Wasserman. The Swinomish Tribe was a sub-grantee for EPA funding used to fund “What’s Upstream.” Contacted by Lens, Wasserman declined comment.

Chang also recommended her colleague Angela Adams bring the message to Dennis McLerran’s attention. He is Administrator for EPA Region 10, which includes Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Alaska.

“This makes it very clear that [campaign managers] really told the EPA staff very early on that the entire focus of the campaign was to achieve their political objectives,” Gerald Baron, Executive Director of the nonprofit Save Family Farming (SFF), told Lens. “The fact that it was allowed to continue past that point is pretty amazing.”

EPA Slow On The Uptake About Ethics Issue

Last April, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in front of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the campaign’s tone and use of money “distressed” EPA. She stated the agency would halt additional funding until the completion of a full review. This was five months after the December 2015 e-mail was forwarded to regional EPA staff.

“It’s unfortunate that our own federal government is working against its own citizens that are contributing so much to our community, state, and our country. It’s an [anti-dairy] agenda, there is no way around it,” State Rep. Luanne Van Werven (R-42) told Lens.

State Rep. Brian Blake (D-19) is Chair of the House Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee. He told Lens “it was obvious EPA knew what the money was for and should be held accountable.” Blake added, “I think while there are water quality problems, it’s a broader problem and we shouldn’t be demonizing one sector of our economy.”

“I am frustrated with this continual attack because of the benefit [farmers] provide to our community and the state… they provide jobs, economic development and the tax revenue they provide is very important, not to mention the food security that our farmers supply for state of Washington and around the world because of our exports,” said Van Werven.

State Agriculture Department Critical

Washington State’s Department of Agriculture (WSDA)’s 2016-2021 Strategic Plan criticizes the “What’s Upstream” campaign for spreading “misinformation” and harming Washington farmers.

“The goal should be bringing people together to identify solutions, not to throw stones or mislead the public. This type of misleading or negative campaign damages relationships and only further aggravates an already challenging situation,” the department wrote.

Last month, U.S. Representative Dan Newhouse (R-4) fronted a letter sent to McCarthy asking what EPA has done since commenting in front of the U.S. Senate to ensure EPA grant contractors are operating within the law.

“Congressman Newhouse has continued to press the EPA for answers,” a Newhouse spokesman told Lens this week. “He expects to…get the answers that Washingtonians and farmers deserve.”

Last fall, the Swinomish Tribe changed the What’s Upstream campaign website after discussion with EPA and a comprehensive review to achieve legal compliance under state lobbying laws.

“While the tribe did not ultimately make all of the changes requested by EPA, they did remove billboards and altered some web content,” a regional EPA spokesperson told Lens. “We understand from conversations with the NWIFC that since the 2013 grant cycle no taxpayer funds have paid for, nor is the Swinomish Tribe currently requesting payment for, work related to ‘What’s Upstream.’”

However, what did happen with monies granted by EPA is still a live issue.

Amended Complaint To PDC

Last week, SFF Lawyer James Tupper Jr. sent an amended complaint to the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) in light of the recently uncovered documents. This is one month after an initial complaint to the PDC, prompting an official investigation of the campaign’s alleged illegal lobbying activity.

One of attached documents included a 2011 EPA review of Wasserman’s grant proposal, which concluded that the campaign would not violate lobbying laws, but would entail “one-on-one meetings with stakeholders and elected officials to inform a target audience capable of influencing public opinion and policy.” 

Tupper noted the December 2 e-mail showed EPA knowledge of “intent and actual engagement in grassroots lobbying” by the campaign.

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