WASHINGTON – The EPA erroneously released the confidential business information of 80,000 animal feeding operations and agriculture producers to litigious environmental groups raising concerns among lawmakers that the information will be used to harass ranchers and their families.
“EPA’s actions are alarming, and raise serious questions about the agency’s decision making and relationship with extreme environmental groups,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said in a letter to the EPA this week.
The detailed information included the precise locations of the operations, the type and numbers of animals housed and feed, as well as the name, address, phone number and email address of the owners.
The EPA is collecting the information to create a national database of all livestock operations across the country, which reportedly will be made available through its website.
The information was released under an Freedom of Information (FOIA) request to the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earth Justice – green groups that focus their energies on filing lawsuits to enforce or challenge environmental regulations – as well as to the Pew Charitable Trust.
Concentrated animal feeding operations in 29 states including Colorado are affected by the action. Only Kansas has refused to comply with most of the EPA’s efforts to collect the data.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association says it expects the information would be used by activist groups to harass its members.
“The EPA’s complete disregard for the privacy and safety of our agriculture producers is unacceptable,” Thune said. “The EPA has threatened the health and safety of agriculture producers and their families, and has damaged the security of our food system.”
The EPA says it has requested that the environmental groups return the information, and that they have been assured it will not be used in any manner, but lawmakers aren’t so sure.
“The negligent release of this confidential information is, unfortunately, in line with the EPA’s long history of disrespect for the rights of private companies and citizens,” said Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.). “There is no way to undo this damage, and it is my hope that the EPA will exercise better discretion in the future.”
Several Republican senators wrote to the EPA last week calling their negligent action an “offensive abuse” of the agency’s trust to handle the operational information of businesses.
“This action demonstrates a troubling disregard for the interests of both private citizens and competitive businesses,” the lawmakers told the EPA’s Acting Administrator Bob Perciaspe.
Republican Sens. Deb Fischer of Nebraska, David Vitter of Louisiana, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, John Boozman of Arkansas, and Jeff Sessions of Alabama signed the letter.
Releasing the personal contact information of the business owners “could result in serious and unacceptable risks for farmers, ranchers, and their families,” the lawmakers said.
“EPA claims that the recipients of the information have agreed not to disseminate the data EPA provided to them,” the letter said. “Since the information has already been released, EPA’s assertion that the groups will not distribute the information is hardly reassuring.”
Concentrated animal feeding operations confine animals such as cattle, chickens and turkeys for more than 45 days during a growing season. Environmentalists say they are concerned the operations will affect water and air quality and have filed lawsuits challenging rules that regulate the practice.
Thune says the EPA’s action is a likely violation of the Privacy Act, EPA’s own privacy guidelines and that the information is supposed to be exempted under FOIA guidelines.
“There is a growing gap of trust between America’s farm and ranch families and the EPA,” Thune said. “Much of this lack of trust is due to EPA’s aggressive regulatory agenda that is increasing costs for America’s agriculture producers. The lack of trust also results from EPA’s perceived disregard for the livelihood of those families trying to make a living off the land.”
The senators have requested that the EPA brief them on the matter by next week.