OLYMPIA — Former Environmental Protection Agency Northwest director Dennis McLerran said Wednesday that the What’s Upstream campaign was “harsh,” but he declined to condemn it at a Senate hearing.
McLerran faced sharp questioning during an unusual hearing on whether he should be confirmed to serve in an unpaid capacity on the Puget Sound Leadership Council, a state agency that oversees water quality and habitat projects. The forum provided an opportunity for senators to question McLerran, who had never spoken publicly about What’s Upstream.
Senate environment committee chairman Doug Ericksen, who called the hearing, asked McLerran about his role in allowing the Swinomish Indian tribe to spend nearly $500,000 in EPA funds to hire Seattle lobbying firm Strategies 360 and press for restrictions on farming near water in Washington.
“Today, will you condemn the What’s Upstream program?” asked Ericksen, a Republican whose district includes north Puget Sound farmers targeted by the campaign.
“Condemn is not a word I would use,” McLerran said.
Ericksen pressed on, asking whether McLerran would characterize the campaign as “wrong.”
“Yeah, it shouldn’t have happened,” McLerran said.
The 50-minute confirmation hearing was a rarity. Many gubernatorial appointees who are technically subject to Senate confirmation serve without ever being summoned for a hearing. The Republican-led committee closed the hearing without immediately voting to send McLerran’s confirmation to the Senate floor, where it could be rejected.
McLerran told senators he wanted to collaborate with farmers on cleaning up Puget Sound.
“I have a deep respect for the agricultural community,” he said. “The EPA is a tough place to be because it’s an organization that does have regulatory responsibility, but at my core, I’m a collaborative person.”
McLerran served as EPA Region 10 administrator for seven years during the Obama administration. The EPA funded the What’s Upstream campaign between 2011 and 2016.
Ericksen questioned McLerran about EPA records that show the agency was kept informed as the tribe and Strategies 360 developed a media campaign to portray farmers as unregulated water polluters.
Ericksen told McLerran that farmers saw the campaign “as an attack on a way of life.”
“Looking back, do you feel that was a good use of taxpayer dollars?” Ericksen asked.
Said McLerran: “I felt some of it was a bit over the top.”
McLerran said he squashed a tribe proposal to use EPA funds to sponsor a statewide ballot measure to restrict farming, but he didn’t connect that plan with the broader What’s Upstream campaign.
He said he didn’t know about What’s Upstream until he had a conference call with the tribe’s environmental policy director Larry Wasserman in July 2015. McLerran said he asked the tribe to tone down the campaign, but that the EPA didn’t have the authority to stop it.
McLerran said the next he heard about the campaign was the following spring when What’s Upstream billboards drew the ire of farmers and some federal lawmakers.
EPA records show that months earlier McLerran’s staff prepared “talking points” on What’s Upstream in case the subject came up during a meeting in December at the state Department of Ecology. McLerran said after the hearing Wednesday that he didn’t recall the report on What’s Upstream that EPA staff wrote for him.
The EPA at the national level distanced itself from What’s Upstream after the campaign was condemned by some federal lawmakers, including the chairmen of the House and Senate agriculture committees. The EPA announced it was no longer funding the campaign, even though its earlier position had been that it couldn’t dictate how the tribe and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission spent the money.
After Wednesday’s hearing, McLerran declined to speculate whether the EPA would have continued to fund What’s Upstream if the tribe had insisted on continuing to seek reimbursement for advertising costs.
The EPA inspector general has cleared the tribe and fisheries commission of illegal lobbying and misusing federal funds.