A federal appeals court sided with big agribusiness Friday when it determined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency violated the personal privacy of tens of thousands of American farmers.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis unanimously ruled that the EPA “abused its discretion” by releasing farmers’ private phone numbers, emails, GPS coordinates and mailing addresses as part of a Freedom of Information Act response to three environmental advocacy groups in 2013.
Those groups include Earthjustice, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The ruling now sends a lawsuit filed by the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council against the EPA back to district court, where the case was previously dismissed for lack of legal standing.
“EPA’s release of sensitive, private and personal materials on more than 100,000 farmers and ranchers was an outrageous abuse of its power and trust,” said NPPC President John Weber in a statement. “We are very pleased with the Court of Appeals’ decision to reinstate our lawsuit to prevent the EPA from doing this again.”
The information that the EPA released affects agricultural producers in 29 states, according to the farm bureau.
Read the court ruling in the document window below
Details of the case begin with a series of complex policies related to how the EPA collects data on concentrated animal feeding operations, or large-scale industrial livestock facilities commonly known as CAFOs.
Livestock producers that meet CAFO definitions need to apply for special permits if their operations discharge waste into nearby rivers, lakes or other water bodies. Permits include CAFO owner names, addresses, maps and waste data such as the estimated amount of manure generated per year.
By law, permit applications and issuances “must be available to the public.”
In 2008, the Government Accountability Office issued a report stating that the EPA’s information regarding CAFOs was inconsistent and inaccurate. To improve it, the accountability office recommended that the agency compile a national CAFO inventory.
Following the report, the EPA proposed a separate rule requiring all CAFOs to submit operating information to the agency — regardless of whether they needed the special discharge permits. But the EPA ultimately withdrew that rule because much of the information was already available. Instead of asking CAFOs directly, the agency began collecting key information from federal, state and local government sources itself.
In February 2013 — while the EPA was still in the process of collecting information — Earthjustice, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Natural Resources Defense Council submitted FOIA requests for CAFO records.
“NRDC has long pushed for better information about, and stronger controls on, industrial livestock facilities,” said Jon Devine, a senior NRDC attorney in its water program. “They produce enormous quantities of waste, and the public often lacks meaningful information about how these facilities manage their pollution.”
The EPA granted the requests, but notified the farm bureau, pork council and other “agricultural stakeholders” after doing so. The industry groups immediately raised concerns and claimed the release of the CAFO information triggered privacy concerns.
“This was an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy by a federal agency in violation of law,” said farm bureau General Counsel Ellen Steen in a statement.
After review, the EPA replied that the information it forwarded to advocacy groups did not violate privacy concerns because it was already publicly available elsewhere, making that argument a moot point. However, the EPA also provided an “amended” FOIA response to the original requesters asking for them to return portions of the agency’s initial response related to CAFOs that didn’t require special discharge permits. The advocacy groups complied in full, according to court records.
But more FOIA requests on CAFOs have been filed since then. The Farm Bureau and National Pork Producers council are seeking an injunction to stop the EPA from releasing similar information related to livestock owners in additional states.
Food & Water Watch, the Environmental Integrity Protect and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement have intervened in proceedings to support the disclosure of CAFO information.