The Environmental Protection Agency agreed Thursday to restore $325,000 in funding this year for the Bay Journal, a publication with a print circulation of 50,000 that has covered environmental issues involving the Chesapeake Bay for more than a quarter-century.
A Trump political appointee who started signing off on each EPA grant last year, public affairs official John Konkus, made the decision in August to cut off funding for the paper. The federal money accounts for roughly a third of the Bay Journal’s budget. The publication challenged the move in an appeal directly to the agency, arguing the EPA had violated the terms of its cooperative agreement, and Maryland’s two senators, Benjamin L. Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both Democrats, repeatedly pressed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in private and in public to reinstate the funds.
On Thursday, Kerry Neal, deputy director of the EPA’s Office of Grants and Debarment, told attorneys for the Bay Journal that the grant would be restored. “This renders the appeal moot,” he wrote in a letter to the newspaper’s lawyers.
“It’s been a big distraction,” said Karl Blankenship, editor of the Bay Journal. “It’s going to be nice to get this behind us.”
Blankenship added he was “actually pleasantly surprised at the way that Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen took up the cause. I actually didn’t think that our grant would rise to that type of a level. I was actually frankly amazed.”
In a joint statement, Cardin and Van Hollen hailed the move as a step toward restoring faith in the federal government’s ability to uphold its commitments.
“I was deeply troubled when the EPA announced its intent to revoke its commitment to the Bay Journal only one year into a five-year agreement,” Cardin said, “in part because of the dangerous precedent that such a move could set for important projects and programs nationwide. Our federal government must be a consistent, reliable partner if it is ever to be fully effective.”
Van Hollen, who sits on the Interior Appropriations subcommittee as well as the EPA’s authorizing committee, said, “We made our concerns clear to … Pruitt, and I appreciate that he heard them.”
The EPA is obligated under the Clean Air Act to publicize its efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, and for years it has used the Bay Journal as a way of doing that. Last year, however, the publication began running articles criticizing the new administration for proposing deep cuts to the cleanup program. Nick DiPasquale, who retired as head of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay program in January, has said that Konkus mentioned the critical coverage in a phone call focused on the fate of the Journal’s grant.
During a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in late January, Van Hollen asked Pruitt whether “it was politics that killed the funding.” Pruitt replied, “The contract is under reconsideration, and we are taking steps to address it … and we will deal with it fairly.”
Asked to elaborate Thursday on the decision to restore the grant, EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman pointed to Pruitt’s remarks during the hearing.
Advocates for the environmental restoration of the Chesapeake Bay said they welcomed the news.
“I get about half my information about the bay from the Bay Journal,” said Tom Pelton, who hosts a radio show on Baltimore’s WYPR about environmental issues in Maryland. “This is victory for honest and good reporting.”
In the months after the EPA told the paper it would terminate the grant, the Bay Journal lost two reporters as the newspaper’s leaders began searching for alternative sources of revenue and considering ways of running the publication with less money.
Neal, the EPA grant official, told the Bay Journal he was ready to uphold the decision to terminate the grant. “However, the Agency’s management has informed me of a second change in priorities.”
In the months leading up to the grant termination last year, the Bay Journal published a story scrutinizing the “wide and deep swath” it said the White House’s proposed budget would cut in Chesapeake Bay-related environmental initiatives.
Democracy Forward, a left-leaning legal and policy shop founded last year in response to the Trump administration’s deregulation agenda, represented the Bay Journal in its appeal to the EPA.
Donald Boesch, a marine scientist at the University of Maryland and president of the school’s Center for Environmental Science, said the bay has gotten cleaner since the implementation of the Clean Water Act. “Oxygen conditions are improving, waters are becoming clearer, and underwater grasses and other marine life are returning,” he said.
In 2010, the Obama administration set strict limits on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment states could put into the 64,000-square-mile watershed as part of a “pollution diet” for the bay.
The amount of federal money that will be available for restoring the bay after years of industrial and agricultural pollution, however, remains in doubt. For two years in a row, the Trump administration has proposed drastically cutting funding to the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program, a regional partnership between the federal government and states within the bay’s watershed.
Those cuts have not been implemented so far, since Congress has kept the government operation at the same level it was funded in fiscal year 2016. GOP leaders will have more discretion in the months ahead, now that the two parties have reached a budget deal and will return to the normal appropriations process.
“Certainly, the Bay Journal deserves to have its contract upheld,” said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. But he added, “it’s a minor victory compared to the attempt to dismantle the federal Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.”