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When in trouble, What’s Upstream went to EPA regional head

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The lead organizer of What’s Upstream turned to the Environmental Protection Agency’s top Northwest official last summer after lower-level staff challenged the legality of the EPA-funded campaign, according to newly released EPA emails.

What’s Upstream was an advocacy campaign to convince Washingtonians to press for increased regulation of farming to protect their water.

Records show Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran met July 16, 2015, with Swinomish Indian tribe environmental policy director Larry Wasserman and tribe attorney Nate Cushman at Wasserman’s request.

After the meeting, EPA staff members proposed that What’s Upstream soften its attacks on farmers, but did not again question the campaign’s lobbying for new state laws regulating farmers, according to records the EPA has released so far in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.

“We don’t see the same kind of legal and contractual issues arising after that meeting,” said Gerald Baron, director of Save Family Farming, one of the groups seeking EPA records. “We see a difference in the tone of the objections.

“From the perspective of farmers, the campaign was false, malicious and an illegal use of federal money. The real question is, Who is responsible for that?”

The EPA declined to comment for this story. Efforts to reach Wasserman were unsuccessful.

The EPA Office of Inspector General is looking into whether some $655,000 spent on What’s Upstream was a misuse of federal funds. Federal laws prohibits lobbying with EPA grants.

The newly available records along with previously released documents confirm the tribe’s contention that EPA not only funded but was deeply involved in reviewing What’s Upstream.

The most-recently released records show McLerran was involved at least nine months before EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy denounced the campaign in front of the Senate environment committee.

McCarthy said the campaign was the result of a “subcontract” and that the EPA was distressed about the use of its money and tone of the campaign and had cut off funding.

Almost a year earlier, EPA staff members were trying to steer Wasserman from using the EPA grant for a campaign focused solely on agriculture’s contribution to Puget Sound pollution.

In a May 19, 2015, email to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, EPA’s Puget Sound intergovernmental coordinator Lisa Chang bold-faced and underlined her concerns about Wasserman’s plans for a media campaign directed against farmers.

On June 4, Chang sent another email about an upcoming meeting with EPA staff, Wasserman and the fisheries commission, which distributed EPA funds to the tribe.

“Larry will want to know the legal and contractual grounds for why he can’t do this. Also, Larry will want specifics about what activities in the proposed work plan is of concern to EPA,” Chang wrote.

McLerran’s public calendar shows he talked with Wasserman and tribe attorney Nate Cushman on July 16, 2015.

Chang referred to the meeting in a July 27 email to the fisheries commission and said follow-up meetings were planned with EPA staff, Wasserman and Strategies 360, a Seattle lobbying firm hired by the tribe.

“I think (I) mentioned last week that Larry and a Swinomish attorney had asked to meet with Dennis regarding the public education and outreach project and a conversation took place,” Chang stated.

“As a follow-up, they agreed to meet this week — Larry and several of the Strategies 360 staff will meet with (EPA staff members) Dan (Opalski) and Angela (Bonifaci) as well as the managers of our communications team here to discuss the project on Wednesday afternoon.”

In August, the EPA reviewed the What’s Upstream website line-by-line. EPA reviewers suggested Wasserman do a better job of documenting the website’s claims, but not did not raise any legal issues.

The EPA review did not object to the website including a “take action” link that let people send a form letter encouraging state lawmakers to consider 100-foot buffers between farm fields and waterways.

In September, Strategies 360 Chief Operating Officer Marty Loesch, a former attorney for the Swinomish tribe, sent an email to Chang, Bonifaci and Opalski, thanking them for their “thoughtful suggested edits.”

“Thank you again for your assistance and support of this important ongoing project,” he wrote.

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