EPA release of farmers’ information still embroiled in court battle

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WASHINGTON — A U.S. District Court judge Feb. 6 issued a protective order against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, stopping it from disclosing information on farmers to environmental and animal-rights groups.

The temporary order is pending the resolution of a legal challenge brought by the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation over the release of such data.

Background

Without undergoing review, EPA’s Office of Water released in February 2013 extensive private and personal information it had collected on farmers in 30 states to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earth Justice and the Pew Charitable Trusts under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests the groups filed.

In some instances, the data contained farmers’ home addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses and personal medical information, as well as similar information for their employees, spouses and children.

After objections from National Pork Producers Council and other agriculture groups, EPA requested that the environmental organizations return the data.

Second round

In late June, the pork council learned EPA was preparing to respond to additional FOIAs from activist groups, seeking additional personal information that the agency collected from other states.

NPPC and the Farm Bureau objected to that release, and in July filed suit against EPA in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, seeking to enjoin the release of the farmers’ private and personal information.

The court dismissed the suit Jan. 27, claiming that neither NPPC nor the Farm Bureau had standing to sue since some of the information could be obtained from other sources, noting that one farmer had a Facebook page and, therefore, had no expectation of privacy.

Under appeal

The farm groups appealed the ruling Jan. 29 and sought a protective order to prevent release of any farm information while the appeal is pending.

“The idea that a farmer having a Facebook page, something 71 percent of Americans with online access have, amounts to a waiver of his or her right to privacy strikes us being at odds with common sense and the clear direction of the U.S. Supreme Court,” said NPPC President Dr. Howard Hill, a veterinarian and pork producer from Cambridge, Iowa.

EPA gathered the information on farmers despite being forced in 2012 to drop a proposed data reporting rule for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) because of concerns about the privacy and biosecurity of family farms.

While the agency dropped the reporting rule, the pork council claims the EPA gathered farm data from state water agencies without informing them about its intention to share the information with outside groups, including through a searchable national database.

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