Two billboards in Washington that accuse farmers of polluting water violated a federal rule by failing to note that the Environmental Protection Agency funds the group that put up the signs, an EPA official said Thursday.
A coalition of environmental groups and the Swinomish Indian tribe put up the billboards in Olympia and Bellingham to promote What’s Upstream, a media campaign crafted by a public relations firm to link agriculture with water pollution.
The groups used an EPA grant to fund the billboards, but didn’t credit the agency’s financial support, a standard requirement for recipients of EPA funds.
EPA regional policy adviser Bill Dunbar said Thursday the agency checked the billboards after an inquiry from the Capital Press. “It looks like a violation,” he said.
The EPA notified the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission that the billboards are out of compliance, Dunbar said. The commission, an intermediary between EPA and the tribe, was expected to contact the Swinomish, Dunbar said.
Dunbar said he assumed the tribe will take action. “I can’t imagine the tribe has any interest in being out of compliance,” he said.
Efforts to reach the tribe and fisheries commission were unsuccessful.
The tribe has teamed with Puget Soundkeeper, the Western Environmental Law Center, and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy for the What’s Upstream project, which includes social media, and online and radio advertising, and a letter-writing campaign to state legislators.
The tribe has received EPA grants totaling nearly $570,000, primarily for the services of Seattle PR firm Strategies 360.
Farm groups protest that the campaign smears farmers, ignores current regulations and misuses public funds.
Gerald Baron, director of Save Family Farming in northwest Washington, said he was encouraged that EPA recognized that the billboards need to cite federal funding.
He said, however, EPA should also acknowledge that the billboards and entire What’s Upstream campaign amount to lobbying, which the EPA grants also prohibit.
“I continue to be amazed that they say What’s Upstream is not politically motivated, is not a political attack,” Baron said. “Our primary concern is still that it’s giving an entirely false impression of farmers and regulations.”
EPA has been kept informed since the tribe hired Strategies 360 more than three years ago. The tribe has used federal funds originally awarded to the fisheries commission to educate the public about fish restoration. The commission represents 20 tribes in Western Washington.
The EPA says it concluded What’s Upstream has not broken prohibitions on lobbying with federal funds because it has not advocated for or against specific legislation. The group’s website includes a “Take Action” link in which people can send form letters to their state legislators asking lawmakers impose mandatory 100-foot buffers between farm fields and waterways.
The billboards assert: “Unregulated agriculture is putting our waterways at risk.” A photo shows three cows standing in a stream. Farm groups complain these and other images used by What’s Upstream inaccurately portray farm practices in Washington.
The Swinomish Tribe’s environmental policy director, Larry Wasserman, said in an earlier interview he does not know where the cow photo was taken.
Environmental groups involved in the project stand by the campaign’s accuracy and describe it as educational in nature.