WASHINGTON – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency broke the law when it mounted a grassroots social media campaign designed to build support for a controversial water rule, a report to Congress from the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office said. The report, dated Tuesday, says that the EPA’s actions in its “Ditch the Myth” campaign violated a law designed to prevent government “publicity or propaganda” not authorized by Congress.
The report is the GAO’s answer to concerns raised by Sen. James Inhofe, the Republican chairman of the Environment and Public Works committee, that the EPA’s efforts to enlist public support for the Waters of the United States, or WOTUS, rule ran afoul of a general propaganda prohibition in the 2014 appropriations act. The report says that the investigators “conclude that EPA violated the described provisions through its use of social media in association with its rulemaking efforts….”
Inhofe’s letter asking GAO to investigate the matter was prompted by a New York Times article on aggressive use of social media by the agency to support the rule, which has been partially blocked from taking effect by a federal judge until legal challenges are resolved. There is no evidence, the court said when it suspended the rules in October, that “the integrity of the nation’s waters will suffer imminent injury if the new scheme is not immediately implemented and enforced.” While the ruling affected the cases of just 18 states regarding the rule, 30 states total have challenged it, including North Carolina.
Farmers and rural advocates nationwide have loudly opposed the rules, most notably through the U.S. Farm Bureau’s “Ditch the Rule” campaign. The EPA’s “Ditch the Myth” response aimed to convince Americans that federal intervention is needed to protect the nation’s waterways and that the rule is not the overreach many in the agricultural community worry it is.
North Carolina’s environment secretary, Donald van der Vaart, has vocally opposed the rule, arguing that it is another example of federal overreach and was not properly vetted before being put into place by the Obama administration.
“The EPA originally came out and said this rule was going to essentially codify the status quo,” van der Vaart said in October. “And then they came out and said it’s only going to be a 3 percent difference. When the maps were finally revealed, it was clear that it was a massive increase in jurisdictional waters. They were clearly not comfortable sharing that until Congress essentially made them.”