EPA releases CAFO information to activist groups

Feb 22, 2013

Despite changes in 2012 to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) required Confined Animal Feeding Operation’s (CAFO) reporting rules, the agency has continued to collect information, and is now releasing it to activist groups.

EPA in 2012 dropped a requirement that would have given EPA access to information about CAFO locations, acres available for manure application, and numbers of head of cattle on operations, but the agency would have made the information available to the public through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

EPA posted the decision on its website last year, saying the agency would instead acquire needed information by other means.

“Although collecting CAFO information is important, the agency believes an efficient approach that does not duplicate efforts is the appropriate next step,” EPA said last year.

“EPA will collect CAFO information using existing sources of information, including state NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) programs and other programs at the federal, state, and local level to help ensure CAFOs are implementing practices that protect water quality.”

While CAFO operators were relieved with the changes, the original privacy concern producers had has now become a reality.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) last week was notified by EPA that the agency had been collecting information from states on CAFOs, and the information was requested by extremist groups, including Earth Justice, the Pew Charitable Trust and the Natural Resources Defense Council through an FOIA request and granted to them.

“When we reviewed the information submitted by the states and released by EPA, we were alarmed at the detail of the information provided on hard-working family farmers and ranchers, family operations including my own,” said NCBA past President J.D. Alexander, a cattle feeder from Pilger, NE. “It is beyond comprehension to me that with threats to my family from harassment atop bio-security concerns, that EPA would gather this information only to release it to these groups. This information details my family’s home address and geographic coordinates; the only thing it doesn’t do is chauffeur these extremists to my house. For some operations, even telephone numbers and deceased relatives are listed.”

In January 2012, EPA proposed the Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 308 CAFO Reporting rule to collect information from CAFOs and make it publicly available and readily searchable through their website. Cattlemen and women, along with the Department of Homeland Security, expressed concerns that this was not only a serious overreach of EPA’s authority and would create a road map for activists to harass individual families, but that the proposal would aid and abet terrorism and provide a very real threat to the nation’s food security. EPA later withdrew the 308 rule on these grounds, but NCBA has learned that the agency still intends to use this gathered data to create a national searchable database of livestock operations. EPA’s current action proves that our nation says it is concerned with national security, but does not care about personal small business security, said Alexander.

“Cattle producers won this issue with EPA’s decision to withdraw the rule and with the withdrawal we had hoped precautions would be taken by the agency to protect such information. Instead of protecting this information, EPA was compiling it in a nice package for these groups, all on the federal dole,” said Alexander. “Moreover, EPA knew, or had reason to know, this information would be readily accessible to all groups wishing to harm agriculture, through a simple and quick FOIA request. My question is, with government overspending and rumors from United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Vilsack threatening to shut down meat inspection to control spending, why is EPA using valuable government resources to do the dirty work of extremists, activists and terrorists?” The information released by EPA covers CAFOs in more than 30 states, including many family farmers and ranchers who feed less than 1,000 head and are not subject to regulation under CWA.

While producers in each state may have a slightly different outlook on the news, the big concern stems from the organizations behind the request, and what exactly is their intention or plan for the information. “I think it depends on which state you are in and what your state’s relationship is with the EPA in that state,” said Bill Hammerich, chief executive officer of the Colorado Livestock Association.

“It’s the who, not the what,” Hammerich added.

Bill Couser of Nevada, IA, shared NCBA’s disappointment with the EPA news, pointing out how proactive the industry has been with groups such as these.

“We open our farms to these groups. When they leave, they go with a little different perception,” he said. “We are not hiding anything.”

But then this happens, and Couser agrees that there are still some unknowns on what exactly the groups want the information for.

“The disappointment is now we are on red alert,” he said. “But I can promise you, we are going to still have that same open door policy,” he added.

Activist groups have been diligently working at obtaining information on CAFOs from state to state.

The Citizens for Community Improvement, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project petitioned EPA in 2007 to take over enforcement of the 1972 U.S. CWA in Iowa.

Environmental activist groups have won a series of court decisions, and have followed up with petitions pressing for federal action. According to DTN reports, they have negotiated a fiveyear work plan with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and are giving that agency that much time to inspect thousands of livestock facilities if a federal takeover of the program is to be avoided.

Last July, EPA published what the Register called a “blistering report of a preliminary investigation into allegations that the DNR is not properly permitting, inspecting or fining large hog confinements and other livestock facilities subject to permit requirements.” DNR responded that it plans to pass new rules and to hire more staff to comply with the federal agency’s interpretation of the act.

The three environmental groups that prompted the Iowa action say they still have concerns over whether DNR will have enough staff to get the job done, and they worry that the new permits will contain loopholes, according to David Goodner, a staffer at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement.

But despite groups such as these that are collecting information, the industry remains solid. “I say bring it on,” Couser said. While it is disappointing that EPA shared the information, Couser points out that it’s important to keep moving forward. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor