A federal judge approved a settlement agreement limiting U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) release of information related to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
Under the settlement agreement signed March 27, EPA may only provide a CAFO’s city, county, zip code and Clean Water Act permit status under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The agreement also requires EPA to conduct internal training on FOIA, personal information and the federal Privacy Act.
“This lawsuit has won a major victory for personal privacy,” said American Farm Bureau (AFBF) president Zippy Duvall. “This settlement is the final step, requiring that EPA scrub all personal information from the records involved and train its staff on the proper handling of personal information.”
The agreement, reached with new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, eliminates the need for a court order, according to Duvall. It settles a lengthy court battle over the release of CAFO information to environmental advocacy organizations.
In February 2013, EPA’s Office of Water released extensive private and personal information to several activist groups filing FOIA requests, including Food & Water Watch, the Environmental Integrity Project and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. The database included the names of farmers, ranchers and sometimes other family members, home addresses and GPS coordinates, home telephone numbers and personal email addresses. National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) President Ken Maschhoff, a pork producer from Carlyle, Illinois, said the release provided sensitive information on more than 100,000 livestock producers in 29 states.
Following objections raised by NPPC, AFBF and other agricultural groups, EPA requested the activist organizations return the data, but Food & Water Watch said it would retain all original records. EPA also prepared to release additional CAFO information from seven other states.
“Farm families usually live on the farm and releasing this type of information was a clear violation of their personal privacy,” Duvall said. “The information could easily be used to encourage harassment or even violence against farmers and ranchers.”
In July 2013, AFBF and NPPC filed an injunction in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota to block EPA from releasing the additional data until a court could clarify the agency’s obligation to keep personal information about private citizens. However, in her 2015 ruling, U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery dismissed the lawsuit.
NPPC and AFBF appealed, and in a unanimous ruling in September 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled personal contact information for CAFOs should have fallen under FOIA’s exemption for private data. The court of appeals then sent the case back to the federal district court in Minnesota to decide whether to issue an injunction ordering EPA not to release the personal information.
Read: Appeals Court: Environmental Protection Agency violated farmer privacy in CAFO information release
The case has roots in EPA oversight of CAFOs through National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) regulations.
In October 2011, EPA published a proposed CAFO reporting rule, which would have required all CAFOs nationwide to submit basic information to EPA, or required EPA to collect basic information from CAFOs in specific watersheds. The proposed rule would have allowed EPA to collect information, like locations and animal population sizes, and make it publicly available and readily searchable through an EPA website.
Farmers, agricultural organization, USDA and even the Department of Homeland Security expressed concerns the proposed rule was not only a serious overreach of EPA’s authority, but would create a road map for activists to harass individual families, and aid and abet terrorism and provide a threat to the nation’s food security.
EPA withdrew the proposed rule in July 2012, saying it was more appropriate to obtain CAFO information from existing sources, including USDA and state agencies already collecting the information. In fall of 2012, the environmental advocacy organizations submitted FOIA requests, seeking the release of information EPA already had on reporting CAFOs.
Despite the settlement, Food & Water Watch said it would continue to pursue CAFO-related information.
“The factory farm industry is responsible for widespread pollution of our nation’s waterways, and this case was just one of many attacks on citizen efforts to shed light on where factory farms are located and what impacts they are having on rivers, streams, and rural communities,” said Tarah Heinzen, staff attorney at Food & Water Watch. “Under the Pruitt EPA, which cannot be relied on to hold factory farms accountable for illegal pollution, citizen access to CAFO records is more important than ever. We will continue to hold EPA accountable for releasing public CAFO information to concerned citizens.”
- Progressive Dairyman
- Email Dave Natzke