Friday, February 09, 2018

EPA kills funding for Chesapeake Bay Journal after editorials critical of Trump administration policies

The Environmental Protection Agency pulled funding from a monthly newspaper covering the Chesapeake Bay, possibly because of stories and opinion pieces critical of Trump administration policies. The Clean Water Act requires EPA to keep the public informed about its Bay cleanup project, and it chose to do this by funding the Chesapeake Bay Journal with competitive grants.

Though the Journal's $325,000 annual budget is a "tiny fraction" of the project's $73 million appropriation, in August 2017 EPA emailed editor Karl Blankenship to notify him that the funds would not be renewed "due to a shift in priorities," Jacob Fenston reports for WAMU-FM in Washington, D.C. The grant payment had been awarded in July and was already being processed. The future of the paper is uncertain, since 40 percent of its budget came from the EPA grant.

Nick DiPasquale
The Journal filed an appeal and freedom-of-information requests for pertinent records, but wasn't able to figure out why its funding had been yanked. But in January, the head of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis retired, and started talking to reporters. Nick DiPasquale said that he'd heard rumors the previous summer that EPA political appointees were raising questions about the Journal grant. In an August conference call with EPA political appointee John Konkus, who was in charge of reviewing grants, Konkus said the Journal "shouldn't have weighed in" on political matters, and that "everybody knows the American public doesn't believe the press," Fenston reports. One week later, the grant was canceled.

Rich Kuhlman, who worked on EPA grants for 30 years, said though he's never seen a political appointee making decisions about grants, pulling the Journal's funding may not be illegal. "The Journal isn’t alone in losing its funding. The EPA under Trump has cancelled millions of dollars in competitive grants, some for political reasons, according to the Washington Post. But there is something that sets the Journal apart from other grant recipients," Fenston reports. "As a media institution, it’s protected by the First Amendment against government retaliation for stories it has published." An attorney for legal nonprofit Democracy Forward, which is representing the Bay Journal, says the EPA's actions appear to violate the publication's constitutional rights.

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