Positive Environmental News? It’s true

by Margie Alt, Environment America on November 12, 2014

With so much bad news flying around — ISIS, Ebola, Climate Deniers chairing key environmental committees in the senate — I thought it might be a good time to share some positive news. The public comment period on EPA’s proposed clean water rule comes to a close one week from today, and our campaign has marshaled an incredible amount of public support for this historic policy.

I don’t need to tell you what is at stake here. We’re talking about more than half the nation’s streams and 20 million acres of wetlands at risk in addition to the sources of drinking water for one in every three Americans. You’re probably also well aware of the vociferous opposition this rule is facing from powerful polluters, including corporate agribusiness, developers, oil and gas, coal companies — and the list goes on.

That’s why Environment America has been engaged in an all-out effort to build maximum support for clean water over the past year. As we head into the final days of the public comment period on EPA’s clean water rule, we and our allies have mobilized the grassroots, engaged key constituencies, and generated a regular drumbeat of earned media all with an eye on getting the rule finalized by the Obama administration in 2015 and defending in the U.S. Senate after that.

Mobilizing the Grassroots 

Over the past six months we’ve brought to bear the full capacity of our field operation and our state affiliates to complement our policy and program teams. Our canvass offices have been providing boots on the ground door to door and on busy street corners in several key states including Colorado, Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Oregon, New Jersey, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, Florida, Virginia, and Maryland.EA1

We had face-to-face conversations with more than 400,000 people, talked with thousands more by phone, and corresponded with tens of thousands more on-line. All told, we gathered more than 200,000 public comments in support of the clean water rule.  And on October 22nd, we joined Senator Ben Cardin and other national environmental organizations — including NRDC and National Wildlife Federation and others — on the banks of the Anacostia River to present EPA’s Ken Kopocis with over 740,000 comments in support of the rule.

Engaging Key Constituencies 

As the polluter opposition ramped up its attacks, we brought in a wide range of voices to support the clean water rule to help balance the scales:

  • Farmers: as the Farm Bureau ginned up its attacks on the newly proposed rule, our field staff and volunteers organized at farmers’ markets across the country, signing up another 262 farmers in support of the Clean Water rule in short order.
  • Businesses: this fall, we also expanded our outreach to recreational businesses, engaging 142 of them to support the clean water rule. And we’re now getting several of those businesses to take further steps for clean water by speaking at public events and submitting opinion pieces to local papers.
  • Watershed groups: we have re-launched the Clean Water Network — in partnership with NRDC, Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation — to reach out to hundreds of watershed groups, and help tell the real story of why clean water matters. On November 5th, CWN organized a call on which Administrator McCarthy addressed more than 60 watershed groups, reminding them all how critical their role is in defending America’s waters. The CWN members resolved to make a last-minute push for comments on the rule and to let their senators know as well.

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Media – Keeping the Focus on Clean Water

Our media strategy was designed with two objectives: to elevate the visibility of the issue and to retake the narrative from opposition propaganda about farmers’ ditches and a federal “land grab.”

Over the summer, we released the third edition of our Wasting Our Waterways report — this time showing that industrial facilities discharged at least 206 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the nation’s waters in 2012. We also recruited sportsmen and elected officials including New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez to join us in releasing this report.

This fall, we doubled down on media tactics including the following:

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Our research team compiled a Summer Fun Index, showing that millions of Americans visit state or national parks with waterways each year.  Recreational businesses — who depend on such visitors — joined us in releasing the Index. These included Sam Drevo, Director of the Northwest River Guides LLC and eNRG Kayaking, who participated in Environment Oregon’s release at the Willamette Park boat docks in Portland.

To remind people about the real importance of Clean Water Act protections, we released Waterways Restored: How the Clean Water Act Impacts 15 Rivers, Lakes, and Bays. We all know the story of the Cuyahoga River catching fire in 1969; but many people don’t realize that today, we can kayak and canoe there. Similarly, in the 1960s, Maine’s Androscoggin River was thick with toxic foam; now fish run in its waters. As shown in our report, time and again, the Clean Water Act has helped protect our waterways. And of course we used the opportunity to call for closing the loopholes!

Of course, the real heroes of Waterways Restored were the local watershed groups who used provisions of the Clean Water Act — citizens’ suits, permit hearings, TMDLs, and more — to win progress for their waters. And in a great example of the synergy of our campaign efforts, it was through the Clean Water Network that we reached out to these watershed groups to identify and select the 15 success stories in the report. Several of these clean water heroes, including Riverkeeper’s Hudson River Program Director Phillip Musegaas and Dan Smith of the Anacostia Watershed Society, joined us at media events to explain how they had used the Clean Water Act to force polluters to curb their dumping into our rivers, lakes, and bays. Also standing with us to release the report were EPA Region 3 Administrator Shawn Garvin Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner John Linc Stine, Boston Environment Commissioner Nancy Girard, and recreational businesses including Cascadia Expeditions and StandUp Paddleboarding.

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All told, we held 61 stand up media events (plus telepressers) in 15 states across the country, garnering more than 300 media hits. We’ve been following up by submitting opinion pieces with the key allies such as this piece in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, co-authored by Environment California and Scott and Leslie Ruble of Covewater Paddlesurf.

Clean Water on the Internet

We also used social media to raise visibility and engage the public on clean water. A few of our social media projects included:

  • An online survey asking “What Kind of Water Animal Are You?” (I was a beaver!);
  • A photo rally of Americans showing why “I Heart Clean Water”; and
  • A weeklong series exposing the opposition. Our digital team crafted a five-part series of Facebook images featuring the big polluting industries that are lobbying furiously to stop us, including corporate agribusiness, developers, and the oil and gas industry.

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All of our campaign operations — especially in key states such as Colorado and Virginia — have also been critical to defending the clean water rule in Congress. For months, lobbyists for big polluters have been scheming to get Congress to derail the rule. And on September 9th, the House approved a bill (HR 5078) to do just that.

We moved swiftly to halt this dirty water attack before it could move to the Senate. Within 48 hours, our state affiliates called their senators, sent press releases to over 300 outlets across the country, and worked to generate dozens of letters to the editor, plus social media posts. And we blasted out an email alert to get thousands of people to tell their senators: stand up for clean water now. For some crucial votes, including in Virginia and Minnesota, our field organizers visited senate district offices to let them see of all the support we had enlisted for the clean water rule from local businesses, watershed groups, and the public at large. And so in the end, as Congress adjourned for elections, we had successfully countered the polluters’ efforts to bring the dirty water bill to a vote in the Senate.

Simultaneous with our field efforts, we worked closely with our national allies within the environmental and hunting and fishing communities and we have been in close communication with the EPA and White House. In particular, we have helped coordinate and guide the targeting of coalition field resources into key states where clean water support will matter most — from the upper Mississippi River basin to the Chesapeake Bay.

Looking Ahead

Congress returns for a lame duck session this week, and polluters and their allies – emboldened by electoral gains for next year – will likely try to move their dirty water bill in the Senate again. So we are redoubling our efforts — making sure that any Senator who might still be sitting on the fence hears strong support for clean water back home, all while bolstering our clean water champions in the Senate to keep the clean water rule on track to the finish line.  We have come so far in the eight years since Rapanos. We will not waver until the job is done.

Filed under: National Politics