Warning that its decision to cut grant funding for the Bay Journal sets a “dangerous nationwide precedent,” Maryland’s two U.S. senators asked Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt to reverse his agency’s action in a letter Wednesday.
Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen said the Bay Journal has “done a sterling job of delivering returns on investments,” and that there was “no legitimate cause to deprive the residents of the Chesapeake Bay watershed of such a vital source of information.”
In the letter, the two Democratic senators said that “we are aware of no other examples of high-performing grantees having their EPA funding revoked under similar circumstances, meaning that this action sets a dangerous nationwide precedent.”
On Aug. 23, the EPA unexpectedly notified Bay Journal Media, the nonprofit organization that publishes the Bay Journal, of its intent to revoke a six-year award after only two years of funding because of an unexplained “shift in priorities.”
The senators said any notion that Congress has shifted its priorities regarding the Chesapeake Bay “could not be further from the truth.” While the White House has proposed eliminating funding for EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program, the senators noted that the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee this summer voted to reauthorize the Bay Program at $90 million — the highest amount ever approved.
The senators noted that the Bay Journal supports the mission of state-federal agreements signed by state governors and previous EPA administrators in 2000 and 2014 which — like federal statutes establishing the Bay Program — call for promoting public information, education and stewardship as part of the Bay restoration effort.
“The mission of Bay Journal Media is directly in line with the priorities of the Congress and other elected officials throughout the Chesapeake Bay Watershed,” the letter stated.
They noted that the EPA’s most recent grant review praised the Bay Journal for “continued outstanding work.”
The agency’s action, if it stands, would prevent Bay Journal Media from getting the $325,000 grant it was slated to receive next year under a six-year competitive grant award made Jan. 20, 2016. The money constitutes about 40 percent of Bay Journal funding, with the rest coming from other grants and reader donations.
Federal grants are traditionally reviewed and approved by career employees rather than political appointees, but the Trump administration this summer put political appointee John Konkus, deputy associate administrator in the Office of Public Affairs, in charge of reviewing all EPA grants. This unusual process has raised concern in the U.S. Senate and among some nonprofit watchdog groups about Konkus’ lack of scientific expertise and the potential for politicizing grant decisions.
In an earlier letter to EPA’s Pruitt, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), ranking member of the Environment and Public Works committee, asked for detailed information about the ways in which EPA grants are being solicited and reviewed. Carper wrote that involving a political appointee in the grant-making process “raises concerns that EPA may be planning to politicize the types of grants EPA awards or the recipients thereof.”
Two nonprofit groups, the Union of Concerned Scientists and Center for American Progress, have asked the EPA Inspector General to investigate whether “Mr. Konkus and other EPA staff are using political criteria instead of scientific criteria to determine grant awards.” The Inspector General has not responded to the request.
The Maryland senators’ letter is the latest in a series of letters objecting to the EPA’s action regarding the Bay Journal.
On Aug. 28, the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers and a signatory of previous Chesapeake Bay agreements, wrote to Administrator Pruitt to voice its concerns.
“By defunding this effort,” the Commission wrote, “the EPA sends a clear message that the cleanup, the science and the citizen engagement are not important.” The letter added, “we are unaware of any change in priorities that would warrant this action.”
The Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee said that local officials “need resources like the Bay Journal, which help us better understand the issues around protection and restoration of our water resources.”
The Bay Program Citizens Advisory Committee said the Bay Journal was “the only publication of its kind in our region, exploring key and emerging issues that impact the collaborative restoration of the Chesapeake Bay in a very accessible, easy to understand manner.”
Bay Journal Media is appealing the EPA’s decision within the agency.