Environmental groups seek to intervene in EPA FOIA lawsuit

A second legal action over U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) collection of information regarding concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) has been filed by a coalition of consumer rights, community and environmental organizations.

On Sept. 5, Environmental Integrity Project, Food & Water Watch and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement filed a motion with a federal court in Minnesota, seeking to intervene in a case recently filed against EPA by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC).  

In July, AFBF and NPPC sought a court injunction to prevent EPA from publicly releasing data related to CAFOs under the nation’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). By seeking the court order stopping EPA’s anticipated FOIA release, AFBF and NPPC hoped to stall disclosures of farmers’ and ranchers’ names, home addresses, GPS coordinates and personal contact information until a court can clarify EPA’s obligation to keep personal information about citizens private.

According to AFBF, EPA earlier this year released personal information about thousands of livestock and poultry farmers and ranchers in 29 states in response to FOIA requests from three environmental organizations. The release often included home phone numbers, home emails, employee contact information, home addresses and in some cases personal notes about the families, AFBF said.

EPA had taken the position with AFBF and others that it has no legal obligation under FOIA to keep most of the information private. 

The FOIA release of personal information related to CAFOs has also drawn the ire of some members of Congress who have introduced legislation to block future release of the information. 

After the initial release, EPA attempted to recall some of the records, replacing it with a new set of data after redacting the names of CAFO facilities “that include individual names,” according to a coalition press release.  However, Food & Water Watch said it retained and reviewed all original records.

Members of the coalition are asking the court to allow them to intervene in the case to “protect the rights of citizens to safeguard their waterways and communities from the many detrimental impacts of the factory farm industry represented by FB and NPPC.”  The groups are being represented by attorneys from the Government Accountability Project. 

“The Farm Bureau, National Pork Producers Council, and other industry lobby groups have managed for years to keep the highly polluting practices of factory farms under wraps,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.  “Now, they want a federal court to promote this secrecy by ordering EPA to withhold even basic information – the identities and contact information of owners and operators of these facilities – from the hands of the American people.”

On Aug. 28, the Center for Food Safety, Environmental Integrity Project, Food & Water Watch, The Humane Society of the United States and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement filed a lawsuit in the U.S District Court for the District of Columbia. That lawsuit challenged last year’s EPA withdrawal of a proposed rule that would have allowed EPA to collect basic information, like locations and animal population sizes CAFOs. The complaint is available at: http://environmentalintegrity.org/news_reports/08_28_2013.php

In October 2011, EPA published a proposed CAFO reporting rule which would have required all CAFOs nationwide to submit basic information to EPA; or required EPA to collect basic information from CAFOs in specific watersheds. EPA withdrew the proposed rule in July 2012, saying it was more appropriate to obtain CAFO information from existing sources, including USDA and state agencies already collecting the information. The environmental groups submitted the FOIA requests for CAFO records, alleging EPA has failed to adequately regulate CAFOs.