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The EPA’s Privacy Problem
Farmers and ranchers sue after the EPA releases confidential information to environmental groups.


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The fire at San Joaquin Valley’s Harris Farms burst out suddenly and rapidly, consuming 14 trailer trucks in the dawn of January 8, 2012. Wreaking more than $2 million in damage, it constituted one of the biggest acts of agro-terrorism in American history.

An anonymous news release issued by the Animal Liberation Front, a radical animal-rights group, explained that unnamed activists had placed containers of kerosene and digital timers beneath the trucks, linking them with kerosene-soaked rope to carry the fire down the row, “a tactic adapted from Home Alone 2.” The statement concludes threateningly: “until next time.” The perpetrators remain uncaught.

Two years later, farmers and ranchers in 29 states worry they’ll be similarly attacked; last year, the Environmental Protection Agency released to environmental groups extensive personal information about 80,000 to 100,000 agricultural operations.

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The data released included names of owners, addresses, global-positioning-system coordinates, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and, in some instances, notes on medical conditions and inheritances. Though environmental groups had requested information about “concentrated animal feeding operations” — “CAFOs” in the bureaucratic lingo, and “feedlots” in the vernacular — some of the information released clumped in data about crop farms, too.

Farm groups say the EPA violated farmers’ and ranchers’ privacy, increasing their risk of agro-terrorism as well as harassment or litigation from animal-rights and environmental activists. The EPA has admitted to having improperly released farmers’ data on two occasions, and has twice attempted to claw back those records.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council are now suing the EPA to prevent it from releasing even more information. Though it hasn’t been much covered, the case has significant implications regarding privacy. It also raises questions about whether the EPA acted politically, cooperating with environmental groups to help them achieve long-term regulatory goals.

“This is really important to farmers and ranchers because this is not just a place of business — this is where they live, this is where their children play,” says Danielle Quist, senior counsel for public policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation. “We are not opposed to transparency in agriculture. In fact we are a huge supporter of transparency. But that’s not what we’re talking about with this lawsuit. All citizens in this country deserve the protection of their private home information. Our farmers and ranchers deserve that same protection.”

Agro-terrorism is a primary concern, say agricultural groups, but there are others: Because the information released is so comprehensive, some worry that it may be used by activist trespassers or scoured over by class-action litigators who could profit from suing feedlots for any shortcomings.

Ashley McDonald, environmental counsel for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, tells National Review Online that “we’ve actually heard from folks that, yes, there has been some suspicious activity that they think might be tied to [the EPA] release.” And Grace Boatright, legislative director for the National Grange, says it has been “pretty disconcerting for families to have their private information accessed by groups that have made it pretty clear they don’t agree with all their current business practices.”

Yet environmental groups say the data collected and released by the EPA is standard for other industries and that farmers and ranchers shouldn’t be treated exceptionally.

“Sometimes the owner or the operator of the facility lives at the facility, so I think that’s given rise to some questions about personal privacy,” says Eve C. Gartner, staff attorney at Earthjustice’s Northeast office. “But it does seem to me like a very difficult question: If someone chooses to locate their home at an industrial facility, does that automatically mean that everything about that facility becomes private?”

Animal-rights activists claim the feedlots systemically abuse animals. PETA, for instance, cites everything from manure smells that cause cows “chronic respiratory problems, making breathing painful” to “a highly unnatural diet” that causes “chronic digestive pain — imagine your worst case of gastritis that never goes away.”

Environmental groups say feedlots increase emissions, cause pollution, and contaminate drinking water. Jon Devine, the senior attorney at the water program of the Natural Resources Defense Council, recently wrote that such operations “generate nasty waste” because “animal manure contains bacteria, viruses and other pathogens, as well as organic compounds, heavy metals, antibiotics, pesticides, and hormones.”

Farm groups dispute these claims, questioning the environmental effect and highlighting improved humane practices with respect to feedlot animals.

Regardless, environmental and animal-rights groups have long sought more federal control of CAFOs, pushing for two specific policy goals: requiring the government to collect extensive data about feedlots, and requiring feedlots to be regulated and permitted under the Clean Water Act.

In the last decade, the EPA has mounted a largely unsuccessful effort to increase permitting requirements for feedlots. But environmental groups were able to work out a settlement with the agency in 2010, compelling it to begin collecting CAFO data.



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