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Ex-EPA official linked to What’s Upstream to stay in Puget Sound post

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The Senate doesn’t act, so former EPA Northwest director Dennis McLerran will stay on the Puget Sound Leadership Council.

OLYMPIA — Former Environmental Protection Agency regional director Dennis McLerran will stay on the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council, a position that had appeared in jeopardy because of his link to the What’s Upstream campaign to restrict farming in Washington.

The Senate environment committee on Thursday adjourned what’s likely to be its final meeting this session without forwarding McLerran’s appointment to the Senate floor, where he could have been ousted if a majority opposed his confirmation.

McLerran can serve indefinitely in the unpaid post if the Senate doesn’t act.

“I’m pleased I’ll be able to serve on the leadership,” McLerran said Monday. “I clearly have a passion for the recovery of the Puget Sound and have a lot of experience to bring to that.”

McLerran was Region 10 director as the Swinomish Indian tribe between 2011 and 2016 spent nearly $500,000 from an EPA grant on What’s Upstream, a media campaign that portrayed farmers as unregulated polluters.

His appointment by Gov. Jay Inslee to advise the agency that oversees Puget Sound restoration was opposed by Save Family Farming, which was formed to respond to claims by What’s Upstream.

“We’re disappointed with the governor’s actions certainly and disappointed it didn’t come to a Senate vote,” the group’s director, Gerald Baron, said. “This appointment has put us on notice to be watching carefully the actions of the Puget Sound Partnership.”

McLerran was grilled about What’s Upstream June 14 by the Senate environment committee in a confirmation hearing. McLerran said the campaign was too harsh toward farmers, but declined to outright condemn it.

The hearing was unusual. None of the other six members on the leadership council, appointed over the past several years, have been subjected to a hearing. McLerran was summoned soon after he was appointed.

The chairman of the environment committee, Ferndale Republican Doug Ericksen, denied Thursday that he singled out McLerran because of What’s Upstream. Ericksen said that he didn’t realize the other members of the council had not been called for a confirmation hearing.

He deflected questions about why the committee didn’t forward McLerran’s appointment for a vote by the full Senate and didn’t rule out taking up the issue again. “There’s no rush to it,” he said.

The Republican-led committee lacked one vote to force a floor vote, according to a person familiar with the matter.

McLerran was appointed to fill the final year of an unexpired four-year term. McLerran said he would be willing to be on the council beyond the one year.

“If the governor asked me to serve again, I certainly would,” he said. “I’d very much like to have a positive and collaborative relationship with agriculture.”

What’s Upstream culminated in 2016 with a media blitz to influence state legislators to impose mandatory buffers between fields and waterways. The effort collapsed that spring when some federal lawmakers took note and denounced the campaign as a malicious attack on agriculture.

According to EPA records, McLerran met tribal officials in 2015, assuring them he didn’t see the campaign as a legal issue but also urging them to tone down the campaign’s attacks on agriculture.

Subsequently, the tribe, in partnership with several environmental groups, intensified its criticism of farming through a revamped website and letter-writing campaign to state lawmakers,

“I think I did everything possible to change the tone and the nature of the campaign,” McLerran said.

The EPA’s inspector general found that What’s Upstream was a proper use of an EPA grant, dismissing allegations by some federal lawmakers that it was illegal lobbying funded by taxpayers.

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