THE Environmental Protection Agency regularly touts that it received more than 1 million public comments on its "waters of the U.S." rule — now dubbed the "clean water rule" — but it appears that many of those comments resulted from EPA's own grassroots lobbying campaign, which came under scrutiny in New York Times reporting on possible legal and ethical violations at the agency.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told a Senate committee in March that 87.1% of the comments favored the agency's proposal. Although federal law does not permit the President and political appointees like the EPA administrator from promoting government policy, EPA sponsored a drive on Facebook and Twitter late last year to promote its clean water rule in conjunction with the Sierra Club.
"A deeper look at the '1 million comment' claim shows a more complicated story," Sens. Dan Sullivan (R., Alaska), Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.) and Mike Rounds (R., S.D.) wrote in a letter to McCarthy. "According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, only 20,567 of those comments are considered 'unique,' and of those, only 10% were considered substantive."
The letter demands that McCarthy answer a number of questions regarding the lobbying efforts led by EPA, including how much staff time was spent generating the comments, how much taxpayer money went into generating them and whether or not she received a legal opinion on the lobbying effort prior to EPA embarking on the unprecedented campaign.
"The former Obama campaign officials that received political appointments at EPA are apparently putting their activist knowledge base to use," National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. president Phillip Ellis said. "Soliciting endorsements and support is a far cry from simply educating the public, as EPA officials claim."
Brenda Richards, Idaho rancher and Public Lands Council president, added, "The EPA has been spending taxpayer dollars employing a grassroots lobbying campaign, hiding information, dismissing concerns from stakeholders and holding closed-door meetings with environmental activists. There is no question that this rule will infringe on private property rights and usurp state authority over land and water use. Ambiguous language included will only serve to further jam courtrooms across the country with jurisdictional challenges."
Since EPA first proposed the water rule, it has been widely criticized by the agriculture and small business sectors. Those criticisms continued after the release of the final rule, but some are holding off judgment until more is understood about how it all will play out.
One gripe is whether agriculture and other stakeholders were adequately allowed to voice input during the entire rule-making process. This is really the foundation of legislation passed in the House and introduced in the Senate that would block the current rule and require EPA to go back to the drawing board and work better with stakeholders to write a new rule.
Sen. Thad Cochran (R., Miss.), who currently chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he expects new challenges to the final rule in Congress and the court system.
Now that the final rule has been released, Congress can consider action to formally disapprove the regulation through the Congressional Review Act during a 60-day review period.