EPA restores funding to small newspaper focused on environmental programs

A small newspaper that covers environmental issues in the Chesapeake Bay area is expecting its funding back after the Environmental Protection Agency informed the paper the agency has decided to restore grant funding that was previously revoked.

The Chesapeake Bay Journal, which is free and published by a nonprofit organization, reports on environmental issues and events in the Bay and has historically received grant funding as part of a requirement that the agency inform the public about its program to clean up and restore the area around the Chesapeake Bay.

The paper was still expecting $325,000 from a multi-year grant but in August the EPA informed it the funding would be cut immediately “due to a shift in priorities,” according to documents posted by a legal group representing the paper. The grant represents a third of the paper’s budget.

The paper argues the decision was, in part, politically motivated and that the EPA did not provide an adequate reason to cancel the funding in an appeal filed on behalf of the paper by the group Democracy Forward. The Journal’s editor, Karl Blankenship, said it never told him anything about the process leading up to the decision to cut their grant.

On Thursday, an EPA official told the paper in a letter that the agency has changed its priorities again and will continue to provide funding for the Chesapeake Bay Project and restore funding for the paper.

Blankenship said he was on a teleconference with a meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Program on Friday and that everyone in the room broke out in applause when an EPA official announced the funding has been restored.

A couple of people left the Journal because of the uncertainty with its funding. He said it was a big diversion from their reporting but that it also gave him a chance to see how much people appreciate their work.

“When this happened not only did people donate more, a lot of people wrote really nice letters and notes and made phone calls,” he said.

In January, a former official from the Chesapeake Bay Program told E&E News that the paper’s funding was withdrawn by a political appointee who said “everybody knows that the American public doesn’t trust the press” and that the EPA should not continue funding the Journal.

That former EPA official, Nicholas DiPasquale, told E&E that the decision to withdraw funding was “totally ideologically driven.”

Democratic senators questioned EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt about that report and the decision to withdraw funding in a hearing for the Environment and Public Works Committee a few weeks later.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before the Senate Environment Committee on Capitol Hill, Jan. 30, 2018, in Washington.

In the hearing, Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., urged Pruitt to reinstate the funding, saying the Chesapeake Bay program is very popular and that the public information about the program is important. Pruitt said the decision was already under reconsideration.

“I learned of that decision after the fact and I think it was probably a decision that should not have been made in the way that it was,” he said.

Another Democrat from Maryland, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, asked Pruitt specifically if he looked into the issue over whether the funding was withdrawn for political reasons.

“The retired head of the Bay Program just earlier this month, in an interview to Energy and Environment Daily, said that was politics that killed the funding for Bay Journal,” he said.

Pruitt responded that it was “under reconsideration” and that the agency was taking steps to address the issue.

“It’s something that’s under reconsideration, and I’m familiar with it at this point and we are taking steps to address it,” Pruitt said.

The EPA had no further comment Friday other than to reference Pruitt’s comments during the hearing.

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