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Bay Journal Media challenges EPA’s termination of grant

Craighill Channel Lower Range Front Light Station is located in the Chesapeake Bay approximately two miles offshore from North Point State Park at longitude 39.188614, latitude -76.394399. (General Services Administration photo)

Craighill Channel Lower Range Front Light Station in the Chesapeake Bay. A publication that reports on the bay is suing the EPA over the curtailment of its grant. (General Services Administration photo)

A nonprofit publication covering the Chesapeake Bay is appealing the Environmental Protection Agency’s termination of a multi-year grant supporting its production and suing over a failure to provide requested records pertaining to the decision.

In August, the EPA notified Bay Journal Media Inc., the nonprofit which publishes the Bay Journal, that it intended to cancel a six-year award after only two years due to a “shift” in agency priorities, the Bay Journal reported Tuesday.

On Nov. 20, Bay Journal Media filed an appeal challenging the decision as a First Amendment violation because it may have been caused by articles the Journal published. The nonprofit also filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit earlier this month, citing the EPA’s failure to respond to a request for records and communications related to the Bay Journal and any priority shifts.

The termination was “unlawful, unexplained, and unilateral” and done without consulting the Chesapeake Executive Council, a bipartisan panel of state officials, according to a news release from Democracy Forward, a nonprofit legal organization representing the publisher. The Bay Journal was set to receive a total of $1.95 million over the course of six years.

“Nothing we have seen explains the Trump administration’s abrupt about-face on this well-respected, environmentally focused news outlet,” said Anne Harkavy, Democracy Forward executive director. “The cut to Bay Journal’s grant was either an arbitrary decision by a political appointee or a flat-out attempt at censorship, or both. This raises serious First Amendment concerns that will not go unchallenged.”

The filings allege John Konkus, a former Trump campaign aide, has “interfered” in the EPA’s Office of Public Affairs and caused millions of dollars in grants to be canceled. Charging a political appointee with reviewing grants was “a departure from past practice.”

The Bay Journal, which has been supported in part by EPA funding since 1991, has a stated mission of producing “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,” according to court filings.

Bay Journal Media has received two exemplary evaluations since the most recent grant award in January 2016, according to the FOIA lawsuit, and as recently as July an EPA employee emailed to confirm future dispersal of the grant money.

The FOIA request was “tailored … to better understand the agency’s true reasons for the grant termination and to assist in the preparation of the administrative appeal,” according to the complaint, but the agency did not produce the requested documents and despite an offer to set up a time to discuss “next steps,” no correspondence has been received since early November.

The lawsuit seeks an order requiring the EPA to conduct a search for responsive records and produce them by a specified deadline as well as an injunction prohibiting withholding any and all non-exempt records.

“For over 25 years, the Bay Journal has delivered high-level journalism while helping the EPA achieve its commitment to the Chesapeake Bay’s restoration,” Bay Journal Editor Karl Blankenship said in a prepared statement. “We are challenging what appears to be unprecedented political interference with our grant in order to preserve our ability to continue providing our readers fact-based reporting about the Bay.”

Bay Journal Media is also represented by Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP in Washington D.C.

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