Former EPA Regional Director Questioned On Controversial Agency-Funded Campaign, Regulatory Issues

Sen. Doug Ericksen chairs the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee; members probed regional EPA involvement in the agency's controversial "What's Upstream" campaign. Photo: Majority Coalition Caucus

Governor Jay Inslee’s appointee to the Puget Sound Partnership (PSP) Leadership Council, Dennis McLerran, took a shellacking from Senate Republicans during a Wednesday, June 14 committee hearing regarding agency activities while he served as regional director of the Environment Protection Agency’s (EPA) Region 10.

Although McLerran won’t require state Senate approval prior to taking his new position with the state agency that runs efforts to clean up Puget Sound, lawmakers on the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee took the opportunity to grill him during his confirmation hearing regarding the controversial, EPA-funded “What’s Upstream” Campaign, which was hit with a Public Disclosure Commission complaint last year. The committee has yet to vote on the confirmation.

Members also scrutinized McLerran’s decision to replace the state’s fish-consumption rule with more stringent water-quality standards that cities and industry leaders say could cost them billions to meet.

Though the EPA’s Office of Inspector General (IG) audit concluded that What’s Upstream lobbied Washington lawmakers legally, agricultural industry members have questioned the report’s accuracy,  including Sen. Shelly Short (R-7), a member of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee. At the June 14 hearing she said, “To me, that (campaign) was very disingenuous to agriculture.”

Chair Doug Ericksen (R-41), who acted as the communications director for President Trump’s EPA transition team, told McLerran that “I know a lot of people…saw it (What’s Upstream) as an attack on their way of life. Do you feel that was a good use of taxpayer dollars? Do you feel that was a positive for Washington state?”

McLerran said he was not aware of the campaign’s content until after the material appeared publicly. Though funded by EPA, the campaign was organized by the Swinomish Tribe, a sub-grantee. He added that he attempted to soften the “harsh” rhetoric once he became informed.

“I felt that some of the content was a bit over the top and negative, and I would not have wanted that to be the case,” he said. “The way the grant was structured, that would not have been known until the information was developed and put forward.”

However, last October it was found that the EPA was aware of the original intent of the campaign four-and-a-half months before funding ceased. At the hearing, Ericksen pointed out that documents obtained “seem to show that EPA was intimately involved in the planning and the structure of the What’s Upstream campaign, that it wasn’t a surprise to the EPA when this is what resulted. You’re saying that you personally were not involved in that, and had no knowledge of it, and it was other staff members at the regional office that were having those communications?”

McLerran repeated his assertion that he had only learned of it after the fact. “My belief is that the EPA was…trying to influence the tribe to be more collaborative” though unable to directly control the content.

When asked by Ericksen whether he would condemn the campaign, McLerran replied: “’Condemn’ is a word I would not use, but I would say that my prior testimony stands.”

Later, Ericksen questioned McLerran on his decision to override the state’s fish-consumption rule with the EPA’s. “Was there any consultation between yourself, the governor’s office or the Department of Ecology with regards to the fish-consumption rule prior to you making your decision to invalidate Washington state’s?” he asked.

When McLerran said there had been, Ericksen inquired if there had been “any communication with regards to efforts to have one rule come forward with the understanding that EPA would replace it with a different standard?”

McLerran didn’t answer directly, arguing that EPA’s fish-consumption rule reflected the latest scientific data.

Both the EPA and the state fish-consumption rules use a cancer risk rate of one in a million as part of their formula for determining allowable levels of certain chemicals. However, critics have argued that it’s an arbitrary number first used in the 1970s that has no scientific basis.

McLerran was appointed to his position in May and will hold it until June 25, 2018.h

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TJ Martinell has five-plus years of news reporting experience, and has worked as an SEO specialist. He is a graduate of Eastern Washington University.

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