By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The nominee to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency vowed to stop releasing private information about feedlots and other operations during an April 11 Senate confirmation hearing.
Gina McCarthy, currently the acting administrator for EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, said she would improve the agency's system for releasing data under the Freedom of Information Act.
The EPA has alarmed the agriculture industry by releasing names, addresses and other information about owners of confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, to environmental groups.
"I would do everything I can to make sure those errors are not repeated," McCarthy said during the hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
The statement was made in response to a question by Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., who said farmers and ranchers were frustrated with EPA bureaucracy.
"There's a perception there's collusion between EPA and some of these activists," said Fischer.
While the agency has said that much of the CAFO data was otherwise available, it has removed private information from the records released to environmental groups and asked them to return previous documents.
McCarthy also faced scrutiny over another Freedom of Information Act issue -- the allegation that EPA officials use personal email accounts to shield communications with environmentalists from public disclosure.
When asked about the accusation, McCarthy denied any wrongdoing.
"I don't not conduct business through personal email," she said.
In situations where she had used personal email to send documents from her home in Boston, the messages remained within EPA's system and would be discoverable under a FOIA request, McCarthy said.
Another emerging controversy related to public disclosure is the allegation that EPA officials used "instant messages" to avoid leaving records of their communications.
"One good thing about being 58 is I have never used them," McCarthy said.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the revelation that the previous EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, used an alias email account was not "nefarious" and that destruction of emails by EPA officials was a problem under the Bush administration.
"This whole issue is a non-issue in terms of this EPA now," Boxer said.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said he was concerned that EPA can circumvent proper rule-making with the "sue and settle" strategy of coordinating lawsuits and settlements with environmentalists.
"The truly impacted parties never get a seat at the table," he said. "Shouldn't they have input into that?"
McCarthy said that, in her experience with the Clean Air Act, the government must put draft settlements up for public comment before finalizing the deals.