EPA-funded billboards attacking farmers coming down

A Washington state tribe took down an anti-agriculture billboard and said a second one will come down too, one day after the Environmental Protection Agency issued a statement saying the media campaign was an inappropriate use of EPA funds.

Don Jenkins, Capital Press

Published on April 7, 2016 9:52AM

A “What’s Upstream” billboard in Olympia came down Wednesday, and a second one in Bellingham was expected to be removed, a day after the Environmental Protection Agency said the media campaign was an inappropriate use of federal funds that were awarded to a tribe for public education.

Swinomish Indian tribe environmental policy director Larry Wasserman said the tribe is taking down the billboards voluntarily.

“There has been no violation, but because of the concerns EPA has raised, we’re being responsive until their concerns are addressed,” he said.

The tribe and several environmental groups collaborated on What’s Upstream to rally political support for more regulations on agriculture. The tribe has funded the advertising and social media campaign with nearly $600,000 the EPA awarded the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

EPA Northwest regional Bill Dunbar said the agency supports the tribe’s decision to take down the billboards, though EPA didn’t order that the signs be removed. “We had not come to that conversation,” he said.

It remained unclear Wednesday whether EPA will take further steps to dismantle What’s Upstream.

Wasserman said the tribe has no plans to take down the What’s Upstream website, which includes a “Take Action” link to a form letter to state lawmakers. The group’s Facebook page was active Wednesday.

The billboard in Olympia was placed on a busy street west of the Capitol. Its removal provided little satisfaction, Washington State Dairy Federation policy director Jay Gordon said. “It’s a small step in the right direction,” he said.

The tribe’s campaign partners include Puget Soundkeeper, the Western Environmental Center and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

Wasserman said the tribe spent its own money on the billboards. The message and imagery, however, are the same as other campaign materials. The tribe hired a public relations firm, Strategies 360, to develop the message.

The tribe had apparently spent nearly $600,000 of EPA money on the campaign through the end of September, based on a Capital Press review of reports the tribe submitted to the EPA since 2011.

Wasserman would not confirm the number or estimate how much EPA money has been spent on the campaign in the past six months. Another report to the EPA is due this month.

In prior reports, the tribe has left blank boxes in EPA forms to report other sources of money. Wasserman declined to say how much the tribe has spent.

The EPA said last month the campaign did not violate prohibitions on using federal funds for lobbying, though it did conclude the billboards should have noted EPA’s financial support.

EPA’s statement Tuesday distancing itself from the “tone and content” of the campaign came one day after Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., issued a state condemning the billboards and taking the EPA to task for funding the campaign.

Roberts and Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, have written the inspector general of the EPA asking for an investigation. The Inspector General’s Office says it won’t confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.


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