Farmers are furious that the recently passed farm bill permits the Environmental Protection Agency to disclose their detailed personal information to potentially hostile environmental groups who file Freedom of Information requests.
They fear that their privacy rights are in danger of being violated, as they were on two occasions in 2013.
However, the farm bill retains a provision directing the Government Accountability Office to study how the EPA manages Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, after reports that personal information from 80,000 to 100,000 farmers and ranchers was compromised last year.
"Farmers and ranchers are just like every other American who wants to have basic protections and to have their personal privacy respected. Just because they live at their place of business should not mean they are not afforded protection under federal law," Danielle Quest, a lawyer with the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), told Newsmax.
Quest said the EPA did not give due notice to the farmers and ranchers whose information was released.
In early 2013, the EPA responded to a FOIA request by several environmental advocacy groups by providing thousands of detailed data spreadsheets about livestock and poultry farmers and ranchers in 29 states.
When the EPA released to the groups data on large-scale "Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations," known as CAFOs, the information contained addresses of small ranches and farms that often serve as both a place of business and residence.
The EPA failed to redact personal information, including home addresses, personal email addresses, GPS coordinates, and in some cases medical histories.
The environmental groups that received the information were Earth Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Pew Charitable Trust. The groups maintain that the large-scale operations are sources of water pollution and often violate the Clean Water Act.
Although the EPA apologized and asked the groups to return the un-redacted data, the agency continues to assert that they have no legal obligation under FOIA to keep any publicly available information private.
After the EPA reviewed the data, it re-released it on April 4 with some redactions. A few weeks later, the EPA acknowledged it had again provided some information that should have been withheld and again requested that the information be returned.
The privacy dispute has its roots in a 2008 settlement reached between the EPA and environmental groups concerning what information CAFOs are required to report to the agency. As part of the settlement, EPA proposed a regulation requiring all medium and large CAFOs to report information about their operations to the EPA.
While the EPA withdrew the proposal in 2012, it continued to use state databases
to collection information.
The AFBF and the National Pork Producers Council filed a lawsuit in June 2013 to prevent future release of personal information and to create a favorable legal precedent establishing that the privacy protections provided in FOIA
extend to a farm family's name, personal home address, email, and phone number.
A month later, the AFBF sought an injunction to prevent the EPA from further releasing data under FOIA until a legal determination clarifies what the EPA's obligation is to keep personal information about citizens private.
The Environmental Integrity Project, along with several other groups, also filed a lawsuit in U.S District Court for the District of Columbia contending that the EPA lacked the "rational basis required by law" when it made the decision to withdraw the proposed rule.
The EPA contends that because the information is publicly available, the agency is within its rights to disclose it, but Quest said that claim is not entirely accurate.
"Some of it is not readily available, like personal emails or information on spouses and children. Our concern is with the EPA's plan to compile the information, so you have tens of thousands of farmers in a searchable list. We are not talking about a list of Tyson-owned farms. These are small family businesses, so when you release the business addresses, you are also releasing their home address," Quest said.
The EPA still has plans to put the information gathered from the states into a searchable database, which ranchers and farmers say will make it easier for radical environmentalists to obtain that information, Quest said.
Environmental groups argue the information is crucial to conducting oversight of the feeding operations, and say security fears are overstated.
"People are impacted by the pollution from these facilities and it is their right to have information on what they are doing and how we and the public work to take action to prevent these farms from violating the law. The EPA is doing their job by making this information available to the public," Tarah Heinzen, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, told Newsmax.
Heinzen said fears about eco-terrorists are not reasonable and added that farmers have no grounds to argue that their addresses should be protected.
"If you choose to enter a regulated industry, that is a choice you made and you have to bear the consequences. It is no different than someone who chooses to run a day care service out of their home," Heinzen said.
The controversy also has the attention of members of Congress. In April, Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and seven of his Senate colleagues contacted the EPA seeking to determine whether agency officials reviewed the information to see whether the release complied with the federal Privacy Act of 1974.
In the letter, Thune said the release "threatened the health and safety of agriculture producers and their families and has damaged the security of our food system."
Other concerns expressed in the letter
, as well as by farm bureaus and others, include whether the EPA first consulted with the departments of Agriculture and Homeland Security, which had already advised against compiling a public database with similar information, and whether the EPA still intends to create such a record.
In its response, the EPA said its review of the data release found that all of the information from 19 states was public, and therefore was not subject to FOIA exemptions.
However, in 10 states the EPA "concluded that personal information — i.e., personal names, phone numbers, email addresses, individual mailing addresses (as opposed to business addresses) and some notes related to personal matters — implicates a privacy interest that outweighs any public interest in disclosure."
Members of Congress plan to continue to seek a legislative remedy as court actions move forward.
"Congress is still very concerned about that breach that happened last year and we are looking at other avenues and legislative vehicles to get a hearing on this," said Jonah Shumate, press secretary for Republican Rep. Rick Crawford of Arkansas.
Shumate says there is a concern about potential attacks by radical environmental groups.
"There could be some real and substantial damage done to our agriculture infrastructure if this information gets into the wrong hands. One of the concerns raised when this was proposed was the impact of a bio-attack and the mass amount of livestock that could be taken out of the food supply if there is an attack," Shumate told Newsmax.
Other critics of the EPA contend the disclosures are part of a larger pattern of the EPA showing favoritism to environmental groups when it comes to FOIAs.
Christopher Horner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), said the EPA's actions are akin to the IRS targeting of conservative groups.
"We have seen many cases where the EPA shows favoritism to those groups it agrees with. The EPA waives fees for environmental groups requesting information through FOIA, but does not for [the CEI]. They have their friends and they have their enemies. When the greens ask for information, they simply give it to them," Horner told Newsmax.
Horner added, "When six of the 10 [EPA] regional administrators come from environmental groups, can anyone say they are surprised? Federal agencies usually waive fees on FOIA requests by the media or public-interest groups, but we found that the EPA waived fees on 75 out of 82 FOIA requests made by environmental groups but it denied fee waivers on 14 of CEI's 15 FOIA requests."
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