By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
The American Farm Bureau Federation has filed a lawsuit to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from again releasing personal information about thousands of livestock producers and their families.
EPA is expected soon to respond to several Freedom of Information Act requests regarding confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), prompting Farm Bureau to file the lawsuit and seek a temporary restraining order, said Tracy Grondine, AFBF director of media relations.
The plaintiffs allege that release of the information would violate farmers' and ranchers' privacy and put them and their operations at risk.
The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota on July 5.
AFBF and the National Pork Producers Council are seeking an immediate court order stopping EPA's imminent release of farmers' and ranchers' private information until a court can clarify EPA's obligation to keep personal information about citizens private.
In a written response, EPA said it will review the lawsuit brought by AFBF and NPPC and respond accordingly.
Grondine said a lot of people don't understand that the farm or ranch is not just where livestock producers work, it's where they live and where their children play.
The information EPA has collected from state regulatory agencies includes personal information including names, phone numbers, email addresses and global positioning coordinates, she said.
"This lawsuit is about government's unjustified intrusion into citizens' private lives," AFBF President Bob Stallman said in a press release.
In addition to privacy concerns, some livestock producers store chemicals and fertilizers on their operations, and public information on an operation's location could leave them vulnerable to theft or sabotage, Grondine said.
AFBF contends that EPA has taken the position that it has no legal obligation under FOIA to keep most of the information private.
Earlier this year, EPA released personal information about thousands of livestock operations in 29 states in response to FOIA requests from the National Resources Defense Council, Earth Justice and Pew Charitable Trust, Grondine said.
Ag groups and others raised concerns about the initial release of information this winter, and EPA redacted some of the personal information and asked the groups to return the original information, EPA stated in an email to Capital Press.
But the information was already in the public domain.
Now EPA intends to release additional personal information on farmers in California, Idaho, Washington, Nevada, Oklahoma and Minnesota in response to FOIA requests, Grondine said.
The issue is not just a violation of privacy and a biosecurity risk, it also opens the door for nuisance lawsuits, said Dave Warner, director of communications for NPPC.
Environmental activists could tap into that information and use animal numbers to claim producers need a pollutant discharge permit under the Clean Water Act, he said, even though they are not required to have one.
In May 2010 the EPA settled a lawsuit filed by the National Resources Defense Council, Waterkeepers Alliance and Sierra Club. It alleged CAFOs should be required to have a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit because nutrients from land-applied manure have the potential to run into navigable waters, Warner said.
EPA settled, agreeing to propose a rule to require livestock operations to submit information to EPA so the agency could determine if individual CAFOs needed a discharge permit under the Clean Water Act and to make that information public in a national, searchable data base.
EPA withdrew the rule after public criticism, but instead collected the information from state agencies, he said.