What’s Upstream timed EPA-funded campaign to sway ’16 Legislature

Don Jenkins/Capital Press Emails released to the Capital Press indicate that the What's Upstream campaign specifically tried to influence the Washington Legislature, bolstering arguments of its critics that the campaign should have registered as a grass-roots lobbying organization.

What’s Upstream backed off a plan to use Environmental Protection Agency funds to run a ballot initiative to restrict farming around waterways, but was allowed to spend federal money on advertising to influence the Washington Legislature, according to newly available EPA records.

The EPA accepted plans to air radio ads during the 2014 legislative session and launch a new website and related advertising campaign to coincide with the 2016 session, according to the records, released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Capital Press.

What’s Upstream organizers, including the lead group, the Swinomish Indian tribe, introduced the EPA-funded website with an email dated Dec. 2, 2015.

The website was a makeover of an earlier version of whatsupstream.com, adding a link to facilitate a letter-writing campaign to state lawmakers urging them to mandate 100-foot buffers between farm fields and waterways.

“We are pleased to announce that we have revamped our website and, starting today, are relaunching a very robust, six-month public information campaign — just in time for the start of the 2016 legislative session,” the email stated. “Please note that the website includes a tool where concerned residents can send a message to their legislators urging action on this critical but neglected issue.”

Besides the tribe, the letter was signed by the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Spokane Riverkeepers and Western Environmental Law Center.

The campaign stemmed from an EPA grant awarded in 2011 to the fisheries commission and “subawarded” to the tribe for “public outreach” on Puget Sound water-quality issues. The Legislature took no action to mandate buffers.

The director of Save Family Farming, Gerald Baron, said that his group was not aware of the letter when it complained last month to the Public Disclosure Commission that What’s Upstream should have registered as a grass-roots lobbying organization.

“This basically confirms the intent of the campaign wasn’t public outreach, but was related to lobbying legislators,” he said.

The Public Disclosure Commission has agreed to investigate and has asked the Swinomish tribe’s environmental policy director Larry Wasserman to respond. Efforts to reach Wasserman were unsuccessful.

In an email Oct. 3, an EPA spokesman restated the agency’s position that it was concerned about the What’s Upstream campaign — “within the limits of our legal authorities as we understood them.”

The EPA’s inspector general is auditing how the fisheries commission and tribe spent federal funds. Some federal lawmakers have charged the EPA with allowing an illegally funded lobbying campaign and are asking EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy for an explanation.

The EPA posted the newly available records online after releasing them to the Capital Press,

Baron said his group will broaden its complaint to the PDC, alleging that What’s Upstream also should have registered as a political-action committee as early as 2013.

Late that year, Wasserman proposed using EPA funds to promote a ballot initiative, noting that the EPA already had funded polling by Seattle lobbying firm Strategies 360 that tested which arguments might sway voters to approve mandatory buffers.

“We had believed a citizens initiative was the intent, but the documents we had before this release wasn’t clear enough to make that complaint,” Baron said.

Wasserman’s proposal apparently focused more EPA attention on the emerging What’s Upstream campaign.

“We need to huddle internally if at all possible to discuss Swinomish’s proposal to use EPA funds to pursue a 2014 ballot initiative,” Puget Sound intergovernmental coordinator Lisa Chang wrote in a Dec. 19, 2013, email to colleagues. She also pointed them to the campaign’s current website. “I was not aware of (the) potentially inflammatory nature of their objectives under this subaward,” she wrote.

Wasserman also proposed an advertising budget of $100,000 for 2014. “A mix of public radio sponsorships and commercial radio advertising will run for 12 weeks coinciding with the 2014 legislative session,” Wasserman proposed in a workplan he presented to the EPA.

Two months later, and the day after meeting with concerned EPA staff members, Wasserman called Chang and withdrew the proposal to run a ballot initiative, according to a Jan. 15 email from Chang to several EPA officials.

Wasserman submitted a revised workplan, which deleted references to an initiative and the 2014 Legislature. Nevertheless, the workplan retained the $100,000 for advertising, including 12 weeks of radio ads, mostly on Seattle stations that could reach Olympia and Bellingham.

The revised website, launched in December 2015, prominently featured video clips that inexplicably linked a farmer spraying pesticides with water turning brown and then salmon dying after spawning.

EPA staff members began hearing complaints about the website, including from Skagit County Public Works Directer Dan Berentson, who has been involved in an ongoing effort to identify and reduce sources of water pollution in north Puget Sound. Other tribes, farm groups and government agencies are partners in the effort.

“I was concerned about the tenor of the website, actually encouraging people to write their elected officials to put in additional regulations and implying that voluntary efforts were ineffective,” Berentson said in an interview Tuesday with the Capital Press.

Berentson said EPA officials listened to his concerns, but he said he didn’t recall any particular reaction.

The EPA eventually distanced itself from What’s Upstream when federal lawmakers learned in late March about the campaign.

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