The Environmental Protection Agency broke the law in a social media campaign intended to generate public support for a controversial rule to protect small streams and wetlands from development and pollution, congressional auditors said Monday.
The EPA's campaign violated restrictions against lobbying and propaganda by federal agencies, the Government Accountability Office said in a 26-page report. The agency blitzed social media in a campaign that urged the public to submit comments on the draft water rule. The effort reached at least 1.8 million people.
Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma said the GAO finding confirms what he has long suspected: "that EPA will go to extreme lengths and even violate the law to promote its activist environmental agenda."
The Obama administration says the water rule will safeguard drinking water for 117 million Americans, but Republicans and a handful of Democrats from rural states say they fear a steady uptick in federal regulation of every stream and ditch. Inhofe and other lawmakers have vowed to block the rule as an example of overreach by the Obama administration.
Federal courts have already put the regulations on hold as they consider a number of lawsuits challenging the water regulations. The rules clarify which smaller waterways fall under federal protection after two Supreme Court rulings left the reach of the Clean Water Act uncertain. Those decisions in 2001 and 2006 left 60 percent of the nation's streams and millions of acres of wetlands without clear federal protection, according to the EPA, causing confusion for landowners and government officials.
More than half the states have filed legal challenges.
The EPA said in a statement that it disagrees with the GAO's assessment, but will fulfill whatever reporting requirements are necessary.
"We maintain that using social media to educate the public about our work is an integral part of our mission," the agency's statement said. "We use social media tools just like all organizations to stay connected and inform people across the country about our activities."
On the water rule, the agency said its social media activity simply directed users to a general webpage about the Clean Water Rule and provided an Internet link to education and outreach materials, emails and presentations. Users also were told the deadline for submitting public comments and how to do so, said spokeswoman Liz Purchia.
"At no point did EPA encourage the public to contact Congress or any state legislature," she said. In its report, the GAO said EPA used a social media platform called "Thunderclap" that posts messages on social media accounts of supporters. The EPA's Thunderclap campaign was entitled, "I Choose Clean Water" and was attributed to the agency.
The site touted the benefits of clean water and said the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have "proposed to strengthen protection for the clean water that is vital to all Americans." The EPA actively promoted the Thunderclap campaign on its Twitter and Facebook accounts and in blog posts by EPA officials. Thunderclap estimates the EPA's message reached about 1.8 million people, the report said.
The GAO called the effort an example of "covert propaganda."
The GAO also faulted the EPA for a separate campaign that provided Internet hyperlinks to websites run by environmental advocacy groups. In one of the posts, an EPA official says he supports the rule because he is a surfer and a beer drinker and doesn't "want to get sick from pollution."
The phrase "sick from pollution" includes a hyperlink to the Surfrider Foundation, a California-based advocacy group that supports the EPA rule. Similarly, a blog post by an EPA official linked to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental group that also supports the rule.
The hyperlinks violated a law banning federal agencies from "grassroots lobbying," the GAO said.