EPA Chief Hits Back on ‘Propaganda’ Charges About Water Rule

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Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy says her agency did nothing wrong when it used social media to promote a major water rule during a public comment period. But on Thursday, she also said she would change the agency’s promotion policies after the Government Accountability Office said the EPA illegally engaged in “propaganda.”

“I think the word ‘propaganda’ is always construed as something horrible,” McCarthy testified at a House Agriculture Committee, adding that the EPA disagrees with GAO’s conclusion that the agency broke the law.

McCarthy said she didn’t mean to “minimize” the GAO report, but she added, “I disagree that it was a problem.”

At issue is the EPA’s controversial Waters of the United States (WOTUS) final rule, which was published last year with protest from most Republicans and some Democrats. In the rule, EPA extended its authority to waters that have a “significant nexus” with the “navigable” waters. The rule also includes a 4,000-foot buffer zone around those waters, which has led opponents to call the rule a “power grab.”

In October, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit issued a stay on the rule.

McCarthy acknowledged at Thursday’s hearing that there is a blurred line between a federal agency informing the public about regulations and illegal lobbying and propaganda. The GAO said EPA’s promotion of its WOTUS rule on social media crossed the boundary. McCarthy disagreed, saying agency officials felt they were appropriately following guidelines set by the Office of Management and Budget. OMB is now working to clarify social media guidelines, she added.

But McCarthy also pointed out that the agency wasn’t lobbying members of Congress.

That prompted Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) to respond, “You were lobbying the people who lobby us.”

Republicans have said that in Iowa, the rule would give the EPA authority over about 97 percent of the state’s land. Opponents also say it could lead the EPA to regulate very small water supplies, including farmers’ ditches and man-made ponds. The rule includes exemptions for agriculture, but Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said he isn’t convinced that a few carve-outs will undo the additional red tape the rule creates.

The EPA’s promotion during a public comment period is worrisome, Gibbs said, because it’s a particularly controversial rule. During a comment period, an agency is supposed to be listening to stakeholders about their concerns. The “propaganda” ruling by GAO “goes to the integrity of the whole comment period process,” Gibbs said.

Committee members piled on. Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) said it was “obvious that you were trumpeting your own views and not taking into consideration the public’s views.”

Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) criticized that “nobody was punished” for the social media activity.

Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) called on McCarthy to “come clean” and admit the EPA was in the wrong rather than continue to defend its practices. “You broke the law,” Scott said. “It needs to be admitted. It needs to be recognized. And furthermore, you spent taxpayers’ money in the lobbying.”

Scott was the only Democrat to voice concerns specifically about the EPA’s use of social media, but other committee Democrats criticized the agency more broadly.

The WOTUS rule was a main focus of a hearing in which members from both parties criticized the agency’s relationship with landowners and state governments. They said the EPA hasn’t acted cooperatively and imposed mandates instead of leaving regulation to states.

Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) said the agency has a “gigantic tone problem,” and the public considers EPA rules as punitive rather than protective.

Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) asked McCarthy to show more “regulatory humility.”

And Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Miss.) described the EPA’s attitude as, “I’m smarter than you and I’m right and you’re wrong.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Rep. David Scott (R-Ga.)

Morning Consult