Chesapeake Bay newspaper seeks answers after Trump administration terminates funding

Republican and Democratic administrations alike have supplied the newspaper with grant money since 1991.

The Bay Journal filed a lawsuit against the EPA seeking records about the agency's termination of a grant for the newspaper, which publishes stories about the Chesapeake Bay. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ron Edmonds
The Bay Journal filed a lawsuit against the EPA seeking records about the agency's termination of a grant for the newspaper, which publishes stories about the Chesapeake Bay. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ron Edmonds

A Maryland newspaper filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week, seeking records that might explain why the agency canceled a grant awarded to the newspaper in January 2016.

After awarding the Bay Journal $1.6 million in a competitive grantmaking process, the EPA terminated the grant in August, telling the newspaper that distribution of funds were being cutting off “due to a shift in priorities.” The agency told the Bay Journal, a nonprofit publication owned by Pennsylvania-based Bay Journal Media Inc., that the termination was not based on any failure by the newspaper to comply with the terms of the grant.

In its lawsuit, filed on Monday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the Bay Journal asked the court to require the EPA to produce information regarding the specific role of John Konkus, a political appointee, in the grant termination. Konkus is a Trump administration appointee with little environmental expertise who was given unprecedented oversight to vet hundreds of millions of dollars in annual EPA grants. His primary focus is cutting grants that include the words “climate change.”

The EPA made two distributions of the grant award — $350,000 in February 2016 and $350,000 in February 2017. In July, the EPA emailed Bay Journal editor Karl Blankenship to confirm that the Bay Journal would be receiving an additional $325,000 in grant funding in February 2018, and then successive payments of $325,000 in February 2019, $300,000 in 2020, and $300,000 in 2021. But on August 23, Blankenship received another email from the EPA informing him that the agency was terminating the grant.

“As near as we can determine, this type of political interference with an ongoing grant is unprecedented,” Blankenship said in a statement. “If this decision stands, it will leave a gap in Chesapeake Bay news coverage by threatening our ability to provide the public with information about how actions by the EPA, and others, may affect restoration efforts.”

The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

In its lawsuit, the newspaper stated it has been continually funded by the agency since 1991 through multiple changes in presidential administrations, both Republican and Democratic. The publication also receives funding from the Campbell Foundation for the Environment, the Town Creek Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Chesapeake Bay Office, and the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

The EPA grant funds came out of the agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program, one of the many regional programs across the country that President Donald Trump proposed to eliminate in his fiscal year 2018 budget proposal. Other regional programs cover the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Champlain, Long Island, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, South Florida, San Francisco Bay, and Puget Sound.

The Bay Journal said in its lawsuit that it is “unaware of any change in priorities” that have taken effect involving the Chesapeake Bay Program. The newspaper publishes articles about the Chesapeake Bay, including pieces citing concerns from scientists and environmentalists about the impact of Trump administration policies on offshore drilling, water regulation, and fish conservation.

According to the newspaper, its mission is “to produce independent, unbiased reporting that informs the public about environmental issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay and to inspire effective action by individuals, groups, organizations, and all levels of government to restore, protect, and preserve the cultural and natural heritage of the Chesapeake Bay region.”

Congress created the Chesapeake Bay Program as a partnership between the EPA and the bay’s watershed states and required that grants be awarded by the EPA administrator in cooperation with the Chesapeake Executive Council. The Chesapeake Bay Commission, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council, recently wrote to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt questioning the decision to cut off funding to the newspaper.

The letter, signed by state legislators from Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, described the Bay Journal as “the gold-standard for objective, science-based information about the Bay for all of us, leaders and stakeholders alike” and an “independent source of information [that] has provided objectivity and called for accountability at all levels.” The Chesapeake Bay Commission urged the EPA to reverse the “unilateral decision” to terminate the grant.

The Bay Journal said it submitted a “tailored” Freedom of Information Act request in September to better understand the agency’s “true reasons” for the grant termination and to assist in the preparation of the administrative appeal. The pending administrative appeal, to be filed with the EPA on November 20, is an appeal of the grant termination and seeks to reinstate the Bay Journal’s previously awarded funding.

The lawsuit seeks EPA records disclosing the reasons for the abrupt grant cut. In the September FOIA request, the Bay Journal asked for access to all records within the EPA and between the agency and other federal or state agencies or other outside parties since January 20 pertaining to the newspaper. The EPA, however, has made no determination on the newspaper’s request, nor has the agency produced any materials in response to that request, according to the lawsuit.

Democracy Forward, a newly formed nonprofit legal organization, and co-counsel Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP are representing Bay Journal on a pro bono basis in the lawsuit and the newspaper’s pending November 20 appeal.