Livestock farmers battle info release

Farm Forum

WASHINGTON – Advocates for livestock and poultry farmers, particularly pork producers, have asked a federal judge in Minnesota to block the release of information sought by environmental activists concerned with water pollution.

A suit filed late on July 5 in Minneapolis requests a court order to temporarily delay the release of material the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was scheduled to make public under the Freedom of Information Act.

The information contains personal details about farmers in Minnesota and 34 other states that the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation say violates personal privacy rules.

At issue are the names, addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses and global positioning coordinates of tens of thousands of poultry and livestock farmers and ranchers across the country.

“The government shouldn’t be releasing this personal information to anyone,” said Michael Formica, a Washington-based lawyer for the Pork Producers Council.

Randy Spronk raises hogs in Edger-ton in the southwest corner of Minnesota and serves as president of the Pork Producers Council.

Spronk said he complies with federal and state environmental regulations and is not concerned with government inspections. What his group worries about is the release of “private and personal information” to “activist groups intent on hurting farmers.”

Formica believes environmental activists will eventually use the information to “harass” farmers and sue for violations of the Clean Water Act. Animal rights activists may also have an interest in the data, he said, which focuses on so-called “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations,” also known as CAFOs. Wastewater from these businesses concern clean water advocates and livestock living conditions concern animal rights groups.

An Environmental Protection Agency spokesman declined to comment on the suit on July 8 or to say what organizations were slated to get the information.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Minneapolis, which will represent the EPA in court, has not yet decided whether to fight to make the information public, according to a spokeswoman.

Judge Ann Montgomery has not yet set a date to hear arguments on the request to stop the release, her office said.

Danielle Clift, a lawyer with the American Farm Bureau Federation, predicted that the EPA, having been served with the suit, will not make the information available until Montgomery decides whether to issue a temporary restraining order.

However, the EPA already has released some details the farm federation and pork producers want suppressed.

Information disks the EPA sent out in February included personal details of individuals and businesses in 29 states, not including Minnesota, according to the suit. They went to Earthjustice, a group representing the Sierra Club, and to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

After the pork producers complained, the agency recalled the information disks, then reissued them with some of the personal data removed.

Pew declined to comment July 8, saying it is not a party to the new suit. But when the nonprofit research group returned the information disk it received in February, it also delivered a stern warning to the EPA.

“Pew believes strongly that gathering basic information regarding the location, nature and extent of pollution sources associated with … Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations … is a fundamental first step to carrying out the objectives of the Clean Water Act,” Pew said in a letter to the agency. “We were disappointed when the agency withdrew its proposed reporting rule.”

Much of the same personal data was set to be released again by the EPA, along with data for Minnesota and five more states, Formica said.

EPA has argued that the information in dispute is already available on websites of several of the states cited in the lawsuit.

Livestock and poultry farms are required to have government permits if they discharge wastewater, Formica said. But he accused environmental groups of going on a fishing expedition for permit violations by pushing more-onerous reporting standards.

Clean water groups, including the Pew Trusts, counter that runoff from livestock operations must be more carefully monitored because it is among the worst pollution risks to the nation’s rivers and streams.