Recently we wrote about a successful effort to keep a provision out of the Senate-passed Farm Bill that would have barred the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from releasing information about farm owners or operators. Unfortunately, though, it seems that the attempt to attach the language to the Farm Bill in the Senate was only the opening salvo in a wider war to stop the EPA from releasing potentially important public health and safety information. The Senators who proposed the Farm Bill amendment, Senators Grassley and Donnelly, recently introduced an identical bill, and similar language appears in the House-passed version of the Farm Bill (Sec. 450) and the House Appropriations Committee's version of the 2014 Interior spending bill (Sec. 11325).
The sponsors say the language is intended to address the EPA’s release of information related to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) to environmental groups earlier this year. After hearing concerns about the amount of private information included in the release, EPA requested the groups return the original information (which the groups did) and committed to redacting all private information from similar releases in the future.
The language some Members of Congress are trying to make a part of the law goes well beyond the stated objectives. Rather than appropriately protecting private information, the language cuts off all public access to any information the EPA has collected on any owner, operator, or employee of a livestock operation (the language in the House-passed farm bill is even broader — barring the release of information on agricultural operations as well as livestock operations). In other words, the language would not just prevent the EPA from releasing private information about a local farmer with a few pigs or heads of cattle, it would broadly shield the information of corporate operations. The language also ignores the possible public interest in release of the information. If passed, the language would completely cut off access to information that is especially critical for people who live near or share waterways with CAFOs.
We support an alternative approach developed by Senator Cardin. Rather than taking a meat cleaver to the public's right to know, the language developed by Senator Cardin maintains FOIA's balanced approach of weighing the public interest in the release of information and reinforces existing privacy protections for farmers and their families.