The Bay Journal faces an uncertain future in the wake of an unexpected decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to revoke a multi-year federal grant to the nonprofit news organization that covers environmental issues in the Chesapeake watershed.
In an Aug. 23 email from EPA’s mid-Atlantic regional office, the agency said it was canceling a six-year grant to the Bay Journal at the end of its second year, effective Feb. 1. The message cited a “shift in priorities,” with no further explanation.
Under the grant awarded in January 2016, the Bay Journal was slated to receive its next annual disbursement of $325,000 next February.
Bay Journal management is filing an appeal, asking the EPA to reverse its decision. The loss represents approximately 40 percent of the Bay Journal’s annual budget.
“The cut has been explained as a change in priorities, but the EPA has failed to articulate what that means,” said Bay Journal editor-in-chief Karl Blankenship.
Blankenship noted that the section of the Clean Water Act that created the Bay Program specifically directs it to support “outreach programs for public information, education, and participation to foster stewardship of the resources of the Chesapeake Bay.”
In an emailed statement, EPA spokesperson Amy Graham said, “It’s not unprecedented for a new administration to conduct a thorough review of the previous administration’s funding decisions, which is currently ongoing for all grants. We are focused on ensuring taxpayer funds are spent responsibly on programs that yield tangible results to protect clean air, land, and water, and as part of that effort, funding for the Bay Journal will now go back into the Chesapeake Bay program to fund other Chesapeake Bay grants.”
Federal grants are traditionally reviewed and approved by career employees rather than political appointees, but the Trump administration has 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 a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) 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.”
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 yet responded to the request.
Blankenship said that the grant was canceled without warning. “Clearly the cut was not based on any problems with performance, because we have a long track record of producing excellent work with sound fiscal management,” Blankenship said.
The EPA confirmed in an email that the cancelation was not due to performance. The EPA’s most recent evaluation of the Bay Journal grant, dated April 5, 2017, cited “outstanding work in producing independent editorial and news content pertinent to the general public interest in Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts. The most comprehensive coverage of Bay related issues within the watershed. Excellent production in meeting the grant requirements and establishing the standard for coverage of Chesapeake Bay related issues.”
Throughout the 27 years in which the EPA has been providing funding to the Bay Journal, Blankenship said the agency has never attempted to interfere with the newspaper’s journalism.
“The EPA has never told us what to publish or not to publish,” he said.
Blankenship doesn’t expect the Bay Journal to stop publication in the near-term if the cut goes through, but its long-term existence could be jeopardized.
“As a nonprofit news organization, we will always rely on grants and donations,” Blankenship said. “But losing EPA support would certainly impact operations, and raising enough funds to cover that loss year after year would be a challenge.”
Several organizations have expressed opposition to the decision and asked Pruitt to honor the EPA’s original commitment to the six-year grant.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William Baker described the cut as a “transparent attempt to shut down the free exchange of scientifically validated Bay information.”
The Chesapeake Bay Commission, a bipartisan group of lawmakers representing Bay watershed states and a member of the Chesapeake Executive Council — which guides the state-federal Bay Program partnership — wrote to Pruitt on Aug. 28 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 also submitted a letter to Pruitt on Sept. 5. It stated that local governments “need resources like the Bay Journal, which help us better understand the issues around protection and restoration of our water resources.”
The journal began in 1991 as an EPA-funded publication published by a nonprofit group, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, to promote citizen involvement with the Chesapeake restoration effort.
The Bay Journal is now published by Bay Journal Media, a nonprofit organization created to manage the journal and related activities. Besides the EPA, funding is provided by a variety of grant-makers and private donors.
The Bay Journal reaches nearly 100,000 readers a month, in print and online. Hundreds of thousands additional readers encounter Bay Journal articles that are published in other publications and websites each month.
More than 4,000 copies a month go to schools for classroom use, and more than 6,000 copies are distributed to libraries, nature centers, offices and other locations to reach new readers.
A recent survey by WBA Research found that 77 percent of Bay Journal readers consider it their most trusted source of information about the Chesapeake and environmental restoration, more than other media, environmental groups or government agencies.
About three-quarters of readers report that they take part in restoration activities.