The Environmental Protection Agency broke federal law when it used social media to garner public support for controversial drinking water protections, the Government Accountability Office said Monday.
The Clean Water Rule, finalized by the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May, was intended to protect streams and waterways from pollution and development. While the Obama administration has said the rule will ensure safe drinking water for 117 million Americans, opponents have called it an example of government overreach.
In a 26-page ruling, congressional auditors said the EPA's use of social media to promote the rule violated a prohibition on federal agencies engaging in grassroots lobbying.
The EPA's use of the platform Thunderclap, which posts messages on social media accounts of supporters, constituted "covert propaganda," the GAO said in its ruling.
"The critical element of covert propaganda is the agency's concealment from the target audience of its role in creating the material," the GAO said.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a statement that the GAO's finding confirms his suspicions that the EPA "will go to extreme lengths and even violate the law to promote its activist environmental agenda."
"EPA’s illegal attempts to manufacture public support for its Waters of the United States rule and sway Congressional opinion regarding legislation to address that rule have undermined the integrity of the rulemaking process and demonstrated how baseless this unprecedented expansion of EPA regulatory authority really is," said Inhofe, who has compared the agency with the Gestapo.
The EPA said in a statement to The Huffington Post that it disagrees with the auditor's assessment and that using social media to educate the public about the agency's work is an integral part of its mission.
"We have an obligation to inform all stakeholders about environmental issues and encourage participation in the rulemaking process," the agency wrote. "We use social media tools just like all organizations to stay connected and inform people across the country about our activities."
At no point, the EPA added, did it encourage the public to contact Congress or any state legislature.
In October, a U.S. court temporarily blocked implementation of the federal water rule after 18 states challenged it.
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