EPA releases round two of confidential data

May 13, 2013

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has admitted to a second round of livestock producer information releases to activist groups, and senators in the hardest-hit states have come out with their boxing gloves on.

On Feb. 10, EPA released information on 80,000 livestock operations across the United States, including 3,500 in Nebraska to activist groups like Earth Justice, the Pew Charitable Trust and the Natural Resources Defense Council following Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The information EPA provided included names, home addresses, personal telephone numbers and employee information of farmers and ranchers who own beef, swine or poultry operations—data that should have been redacted.

On Apr. 4, EPA acknowledged some of the information it disclosed should have been exempt under federal law. It sent an amended release of the same information with redactions. However, EPA failed to remove all private information, including data on a number of operations in Nebraska.

On Apr. 30, EPA sent a second amended release, which included more redactions of records from Nebraska and Montana.

In letters accompanying the data, EPA requested that all previous iterations of the information related to the FOIA requests be returned and/or destroyed.

According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), in this latest action, the agency again admitted it had released too much information on livestock producers, specifically producers from Montana and Nebraska.

Past NCBA president J.D. Alexander, a cattle feeder from Pilger, NE, whose information was released to the activist groups in the initial EPA action, said it is clear “someone at EPA is either completely incompetent or intentionally violating federal law. Either way, this action shows EPA cannot be trusted with sensitive information and should not have the authority to procure or disseminate it. NCBA is calling for an investigation by the Office of Inspector General into this matter.”

Most of the 80,000 facilities listed in the information shared by EPA in February are not regulated under the Clean Water Act (CWA), some having as few as 12 head of livestock. After NCBA and other livestock groups expressed outrage over the initial release of information, EPA conducted a review of the records and admitted it released too much personal information for 10 of the 29 states included in the documents. After a second review, the agency once again said too much information was released for operations specifically located in Nebraska and Montana.

“These actions by EPA once again prove that the agency is incapable of properly doing its job. Nowhere in law is EPA required to obtain and display such personal information on all these livestock operations. On the contrary, the federal government should be protecting its citizens from unwarranted attacks,” Alexander said.

“Instead, EPA has once again threatened the health and safety of America’s farmers and their families, as well as decreased the security of our food system. Now they have politely asked these activist groups twice to return those documents with extremely sensitive information on them.

What makes EPA think that these groups will listen and act appropriately in order to protect hardworking farming and ranching families, those families that environmental activist groups want out of business?” Alexander added that NCBA continues to pursue legislative action that would prevent the agency from being able to make these devastating mistakes.

Nebraska Sens. Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer said the fact that EPA disregarded the privacy of cattle producers in their home state of Nebraska and across the country shows the agency continues to act as if it is above the law.

“EPA’s disclosure of personal and confidential information of private citizens and business owners— including 3,500 Nebraskans—demonstrates a complete disregard for their privacy and safety. Now, we have learned that, in the agency’s mismanaged attempt to recover the information, the EPA failed to request the return of hundreds of Nebraskans’ personal data that should not have been released,” said Fischer.

“This whole episode is more than a mere comedy of errors; it represents a pattern of disturbing disregard for the rights of our citizens. I believe Nebraskans—and Congress—deserve a thorough, independent and speedy review of the EPA’s handling of the deliberate disclosure and botched recovery process.”

Johanns agreed with Fischer, stating that “EPA’s ongoing assault on America’s agriculture producers is nothing short of alarming.”

Senator John Thune (R- SD) sent a letter to Bob Perciasepe, Acting Administrator of EPA, to express his concerns on the release, which included more than 500 farms and ranches in South Dakota. This personal information, including the name of the operation, permit number, numbers and types of animals, and county of residence, was released to the environmental groups Earth Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the environmental arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“The EPA’s complete disregard for the privacy and safety of our agriculture producers is unacceptable,” said Thune. “Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Homeland Security have objected to the release of this type of information due to serious bio-security concerns, yet the EPA continues this troubling and dangerous effort. The EPA has threatened the health and safety of agriculture producers and their families, and has damaged the security of our food system.”

Thune’s letter shared concerns over the growing distrust producers have with the EPA.

“There is a growing gap of trust between America’s farm and ranch families and the EPA. Much of this lack of trust is due to EPA’s aggressive regulatory agenda that is increasing costs for America’s agriculture producers. The lack of trust also results from EPA’s perceived disregard for the livelihood of those families trying to make a living off the land,” he wrote.

In other states, the information released went so far as to give addresses, geographic coordinates, phone numbers, names and address of employees, and even listed deceased family members. The EPA intends to create a national database of all livestock operations across the country, which reportedly will be made available through its website.

Thune requested EPA to reconsider that plan in his letter.

“I respectfully request that the EPA abandon any plans to create a national database of livestock producer information. Such a database would put law abiding farm and ranch families at serious risk of additional litigation and intimidation from extreme environmental groups,” Thune wrote. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor