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Did EPA Collude With Eco-Activists To Push A Federal Water Takeover?

The EPA is on the verge of finalizing a new “Waters of the United States” regulation that would greatly expand the agency’s control over U.S. waters, and may even give the EPA the power to regulate ponds, ditches and puddles.

Republican lawmakers, however, are pushing back against the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, warning the agency may have inappropriately lobbied and worked with environmental campaign activists to inflate the support behind the agency’s water takeover.

“Given the magnitude and controversy surrounding the EPA’s rulemaking agenda, it is very troubling that EPA has engaged in a propaganda campaign to inflate the number of public comments submitted in support of specific proposed rules,” Republicans on the House Science Committee wrote in a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

Republican concerns over the EPA teaming up with green groups to push President Barack Obama’s agenda comes after The New York Times’s Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton published an article detailing how the agency used social media and environmental activist allies to publicly promote its WOTUS rule. Lawmakers are now asking for agency documents and communications behind the EPA’s campaign to build public support. Lawmakers argue this is another troubling episode in the EPA’s history of collusion with environmental groups.

“The American public deserves to know the extent to which federal regulatory agencies are now lobbying for the president’s political agenda, employing campaign tactics and operatives at the highest levels of government to promote policies that could have disastrous impacts for the American people and economy,” Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter wrote to McCarthy.

For months, the EPA has touted broad public support for its WOTUS rule, claiming that 90 percent of the more than 1 million public comments submitted on the rule were in support of agency efforts. But the Times reported the “E.P.A. had a hand in manufacturing” this supposed public support.

“In a campaign that tests the limits of federal lobbying law, the agency orchestrated a drive to counter political opposition from Republicans and enlist public support in concert with liberal environmental groups and a grassroots organization aligned with President Obama,” Davenport and Lipton reported earlier this month.

Liberal media outlets leaped to the EPA’s defense in the wake of the article. The liberal media blog Media Matters called the Times article a “baseless attack.” ThinkProgress said the story was “an example of how not to do journalism.”

But liberal attempts to label the article as a  fossil fuel industry-backed “hit piece” were rebuffed by the Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, who argued it “is a solid story that raises important questions about how executive agencies may engage in advocacy.”

Lipton and Davenport reported the “the E.P.A. sponsored a drive on Facebook and Twitter to promote its proposed clean water rule in conjunction with the Sierra Club.” All while “Organizing for Action, a grass-roots group with deep ties to [Obama], was also pushing the rule. They urged the public to flood the agency with positive comments to counter opposition from farming and industry groups.”

“Organizing for Action also urged members to get involved, a message that the EPA reinforced,” the reporters wrote. “Major environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, became ‘thunderous supporters’ of the effort.”

So why is this sort of activity problematic? Davenport and Lipton note that the Department of Justice has long held that government officials shouldn’t engage in major grass-roots lobbying efforts. The DOJ defines this as “communications by executive officials directed to members of the public at large, or particular segments of the general public, intended to persuade them in turn to communicate with their elected representatives on some issue of concern to the executive.”

While there is no line prohibiting presidential appointees from lobbying the public, the Times notes EPA’s actions on its WOTUS rule “highlights the tension between exploiting emerging technologies while trying to abide by laws written for another age.”

As the agency prepares to roll out its new rule, which critics say will greatly expand its authority to regulate private bodies of water not previously under federal jurisdiction, the Times report could present problems for the agency going forward.

The EPA, however, has defended its public campaign to promote its rule. In a blog post, the agency said a “public outreach effort to increase awareness and support of EPA’s proposed Clean Water Rule is well within the appropriate bounds of the agency’s mission to educate and engage Americans.”

The EPA cited a recent Comptroller General opinion that said “agency officials have broad authority to educate the public on their policies and views, and this includes the authority to be persuasive in their materials.”

But Republican are determined to hold the agency’s feet to the fire over the rule. They hope the EPA records they have requested will shed some light on how the agency promoted the WOTUS rule.

“EPA needs to be held accountable and confirm to the American people that it followed all relevant laws during the rulemaking process before the WOTUS rule is finalized,” Vitter said in a statement.

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