Albert H. Teich/Shutterstock.com file photo

Audit: EPA Used 'Covert Propaganda' in Water-Rule Social Media Campaign

Social-media blitz violated propaganda, lobbying laws, GAO says.

The En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency broke fed­er­al law by us­ing a so­cial-me­dia cam­paign to drum up sup­port for a con­tro­ver­sial rule meant to pro­tect the na­tion’s streams and wa­ter­ways, ac­cord­ing to a con­gres­sion­al audit.

The Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice said Monday that EPA used “cov­ert pro­pa­ganda” by blast­ing out a so­cial-me­dia mes­sage sup­port­ing the Wa­ters of the United States rule. The 21-page re­port says EPA vi­ol­ated re­stric­tions on us­ing ap­pro­pri­ated money for grass­roots lob­by­ing.

The rule, fi­nal­ized in the spring, is meant to cla­ri­fy the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s au­thor­ity un­der the 1972 Clean Wa­ter Act, giv­ing EPA more power to re­strict de­vel­op­ment and pol­lu­tion in streams and wet­lands. In­dustry groups roundly op­pose the rule, and a fed­er­al judge put a hold on its im­ple­ment­a­tion in an Oc­to­ber rul­ing. Re­pub­lic­ans have also dis­cussed us­ing the must-pass spend­ing bill to try to kill the rule.

In the lead-up to the rule’s fi­nal­iz­a­tion, EPA had con­duc­ted a vast so­cial-me­dia cam­paign, aided by an ap­plic­a­tion called Thun­der­clap that al­lows a mes­sage to go out through mul­tiple so­cial-me­dia ac­counts. The cam­paign was meant to counter op­pos­i­tion to the rule and in­cluded links to an EPA Web page about the wa­ter reg­u­la­tion.

But the GAO said that Thun­der­clap and oth­er so­cial-me­dia cam­paigns vi­ol­ate fed­er­al pro­pa­ganda rules by not dis­clos­ing that a fed­er­al agency was the source of in­form­a­tion.

The audit also said that EPA sep­ar­ately broke the law by link­ing to two en­vir­on­ment­al groups’ web­sites that in­struc­ted mem­bers to call mem­bers of Con­gress and fight le­gis­la­tion to kill the WOTUS rule. That, the GAO said, amoun­ted to grass­roots lob­by­ing.

Fed­er­al agen­cies can pro­mote their own policies, but are barred from ur­ging the pub­lic to con­tact Con­gress re­gard­ing le­gis­la­tion.

The re­port was done at the re­quest of Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee Chair­man James In­hofe, one of the key con­gres­sion­al op­pon­ents of the rule, after The New York Times wrote about the so­cial-me­dia cam­paign. In a state­ment, In­hofe said the re­port “con­firms what I have long sus­pec­ted, that EPA will go to ex­treme lengths and even vi­ol­ate the law to pro­mote its act­iv­ist en­vir­on­ment­al agenda.

“EPA’s il­leg­al at­tempts to man­u­fac­ture pub­lic sup­port for its Wa­ters of the United States rule and sway Con­gres­sion­al opin­ion re­gard­ing le­gis­la­tion to ad­dress that rule have un­der­mined the in­teg­rity of the rule­mak­ing pro­cess and demon­strated how base­less this un­pre­ced­en­ted ex­pan­sion of EPA reg­u­lat­ory au­thor­ity really is,” he said.

In a state­ment, the EPA said it dis­agreed with the as­sess­ment and that the agency did not en­cour­age the pub­lic to con­tact Con­gress or any state le­gis­lature.

“We main­tain that us­ing so­cial me­dia to edu­cate the pub­lic about our work is an in­teg­ral part of our mis­sion,” the agency said in a state­ment. “We have an ob­lig­a­tion to in­form all stake­hold­ers about en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues and en­cour­age par­ti­cip­a­tion in the rule­mak­ing pro­cess. We use so­cial me­dia tools just like all or­gan­iz­a­tions to stay con­nec­ted and in­form people across the coun­try about our activ­it­ies.”

Re­pub­lic­ans say WOTUS is a fed­er­al over­reach that will leave farm­ers and de­velopers un­able to carry out their daily activ­it­ies without seek­ing ap­prov­al from the gov­ern­ment. The Sen­ate has passed a meas­ure that would force EPA to scrap the rule, but the White House has threatened a veto.

There has been a push to at­tach a rider killing the rule on the om­ni­bus spend­ing pack­age due out of Con­gress this week, al­though Demo­crats have vowed not to al­low any rule-killing riders on the fi­nal bill. Ne­go­ti­ations over the in­clu­sion of a re­peal of the na­tion’s crude-oil ex­port ban, a Re­pub­lic­an pri­or­ity, have in­cluded the de­mand that there be no en­vir­on­ment­al riders.

It’s un­clear wheth­er Re­pub­lic­ans will use the latest GAO re­port to try to add the rider back in­to the bill.

(Image via Albert H. Teich / Shutterstock.com)

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