Lawsuit stalls release of more farm and ranch data
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has suspended releasing more personal and private information about thousands of American ranchers and farmers to environmental groups which requested the data under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
EPA halted the releases after the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) this month sued and requested an emergency injunction or temporary restraining order from the U.S. District Court of Minnesota to block the information.
EPA was preparing to release more information about farmers and ranchers in California, Idaho, Minnesota, Nevada, Oklahoma and Washington state after receiving FOIA requests from Fair Warning, TruthinFood.com, Progressive Farmer, the Dairy Information Center and a university.
In February, EPA released raw data about 80,000 ranchers and farmers in 29 states, including names, home and email addresses, GPS coordinates and telephone numbers, to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earth Justice and the Pew Charitable Trusts, causing an uproar nationwide throughout the U.S. agriculture industry.
EPA has informed the groups making the FOIA requests that they now must wait until the litigation is concluded. EPA officials have said they have no legal obligation under FOIA to keep most of the information private, requiring state regulatory agencies to provide the information, which was then made public in its entirety.
Danielle Quist, AFBF senior counsel for public policy, said she considers the EPA delay a shortterm victory, but major legal issues remain.
AFBF President Bob Stallman said: “We are sticking up for the tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers whose personal information would end up in the public domain. This lawsuit is about the government’s unjustified intrusion into citizens’ private lives.”
While AFBF frequently supports transparency in government and does not necessarily object to collecting aggregated farm and ranch business data for government use, Stallman said personal location information in the wrong hands could disrupt farm activity and lead to equipment theft, sabotage or criminal acts, especially for operations that store fertilizer and chemicals or that have large numbers of animals.
“In the scope of everything happening nationally with the exposure of citizens’ private information, it’s time to say enough is enough,” Stallman said. “EPA is in effect holding up a loudspeaker and broadcasting where private citizens live and where their children play.”
NPPC President R.C. Hunt, a North Carolina hog farmer, responded: “The release of data containing personal and confidential information is extremely troubling. We feel betrayed. We are very concerned for farmers and with the ability of those opposed to modern livestock and poultry farms to manipulate that data to advance their extremist agenda.”
Last year, EPA was forced to drop a proposed reporting rule for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) because of concerns regarding privacy and the bio security of family farms.
The sought data included contact information, location of a CAFO’s production area, permit status, the number and types of confined animals, and the number of acres available for land application of manure.
Hunt said that regulation was the result of a 2010 “sweetheart” deal EPA struck with environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Waterkeeper Alliance and Sierra Club, while livestock and poultry producers were involved in an NPPC lawsuit filed against
EPA’s 2008 CAFO rule, which required large livestock and poultry operations to obtain Clean Water Act permits.
A federal appeals court ruled that act requires permits only for farms that actually discharge. In dropping the reporting rule, EPA indicated it still wanted to collect data on CAFOs to ensure they are implementing practices to protect water quality and human health.
EPA gathered data from state water agencies without informing them of its intent to share the information with outside groups, including via a searchable national data base, Hunt said.
“What’s ironic is that, in the name of transparency, EPA released information in secret and violated the privacy rights of farmers across the country,” he said. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent