Congressional Republicans criticized the campaign, citing federal law that prohibits the Environmental Protection Agency from using money for propaganda or advocacy without congressional approval.
OLYMPIA — A controversial clean-water campaign funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did not violate federal lobbying rules, an Inspector General audit has determined.
The What’s Upstream? campaign included billboards and ads to raise awareness of clean-water issues surrounding agricultural pollution in the Puget Sound region.
Some Republican lawmakers accused What’s Upstream?, which included a form letter on its website for people to contact their legislators, of being an “anti-farmer campaign.”
The campaign drew fierce blowback from Republicans, including letters from Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, now an employee of the EPA under the new presidential administration.
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Another letter, co-authored by U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, and signed by 145 members of Congress, cited federal law that prohibits EPA from using money for propaganda or advocacy without congressional approval.
The campaign’s funding came from a five-year EPA grant made to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. The commission then awarded about $570,000 of that to the Swinomish Indian Tribe, which decided to create the What’s Upstream? campaign.
The EPA Office of Inspector General found that neither agency broke lobbying rules, because the form letters did not push for specific legislative action to address pollution.
While the form letter suggested that state lawmakers consider a need for “buffers between agriculture lands and streams,” the campaign didn’t advocate for any specific legislation before lawmakers, according to the report, which was released Monday.
The report likewise found that What’s Upstream? did not meet the definition of propaganda or publicity.
The controversy highlighted the Swinomish Tribe, whose reservation sits on 15 square miles southeast of Anacortes along the Puget Sound.
Tribal Chairman Brian Cladoosby has cited decades of pollution in the area affecting the Skagit River. The tribe, under a treaty with the federal government, is entitled to fish for salmon there.
When the campaign rolled out in 2016, the Whatcom Transportation Authority pulled the ads from its buses, after deciding they were too political.
The What’s Upstream? campaign itself yanked early radio spots and some billboards after discovering that some advertisements lacked disclaimer notes revealing the funding sources.
Newhouse issued a statement blasting the report and saying investigators had reached the wrong conclusion.
“I will evaluate all available legislative options to tighten requirements governing federally funded grants so that no technical loophole allows farmers or anyone else to be targets of taxpayer-funded lobbying campaigns,” Newhouse said.
A separate federal audit of about $14.7 million in federal funds used by the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission found that more than 99 percent of those dollars were used appropriately.
But the audit found about $90,000 in costs — not related to the What’s Upstream? campaign — were not allowed under law. The audit suggested EPA seek reimbursement for those costs.
Justin Parker, executive director of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said he was “pretty satisfied” with the report’s findings on the What’s Upstream? campaign. The commission is working to address the audit issue, he added.
Requests seeking comment from Ericksen and the Swinomish Indian Tribe were not returned.