Audit: EPA Used “Covert Propaganda” in Water-Rule Campaign

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

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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.