It seems the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has waded into another controversy, this time over a social media campaign for water regulation.
Monday, the Government Accountability Office released a report concluding the EPA knowingly created “covert propaganda” through social media to sway people to support its “Waters of the United States” rule before the agency solicited public comment. Reportedly, the effort reached 1.8 million people. The GAO also faulted the EPA for disseminating hyperlinks to environmental advocacy groups, which the office says constitutes “grassroots lobbying.”
Among the most vocal after the finding was U.S. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), according to the Idaho Statesman, who concluded “that EPA will go to extreme lengths and even violate the law to promote its activist environmental agenda.” Inhofe and a coalition of other lawmakers have vowed to block the law on those grounds.
Montana farm and ranch groups, such as the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, oppose the rule outright, saying it’s an overreach of federal power and potentially disastrous for ranchers. From the Billings Gazette:
Farm Bureau representatives are in Washington D.C. this week to urge Congress to block the EPA from spending money on rolling out the rule, which expands federal protection of waterways and sources of drinking water.
At issue is how far the rule extends the federal government’s clean water reach over streams and wetlands. The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers have been working for several years to expand federal powers under the Clean Water Act.
From the beginning, Montana farm groups, home builders and local governments have worried the rule would apply to ponds and seasonal waters that dead-end and therefore didn’t pollute free-flowing waterways.
But Montana already has laws that protect public water, said Errol Rice, of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. Federal regulations on top of those that ranchers already follow will make it hard to tell who has jurisdiction, he said.
U.S. Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) decried the EPA’s proposed water rule (as well as regulations expected under the Clean Power Plan, which has prompted stunning criticism from a number of states) as promoting a “reckless, job-killing agenda.”
The EPA maintains it was doing nothing wrong through social media, according to the Idaho Statesman:
“We maintain that using social media to educate the public about our work is an integral part of our mission,” the agency’s statement said. “We use social media tools just like all organizations to stay connected and inform people across the country about our activities.”
On the water rule, the agency said its social media activity simply directed users to a general webpage about the Clean Water Rule and provided an Internet link to education and outreach materials, emails and presentations. Users also were told the deadline for submitting public comments and how to do so, said spokeswoman Liz Purchia.
“At no point did EPA encourage the public to contact congress or any state legislature,” she said.
In its report, the GAO said EPA used a social media platform called “Thunderclap” that posts messages on social media accounts of supporters. The EPA’s Thunderclap campaign was entitled, “I Choose Clean Water” and was attributed to the agency.
Reportedly, the GAO report calls for the EPA to disclose its expenditures regarding the social media campaign and write a formal acknowledgement of wrongdoing. EPA spokesperson Purchia did not say whether the agency would choose to do so or find some avenue of appeal.