I would like to say I am shocked and surprised, but in the current government agency environment, the old adage of why ask for permission when you can just say you are sorry later seems to have taken a good hold on our federal agencies.
For years I have heard farmers and ranchers speculate about answering Census questions and filing reports with government agencies. Because 75% of farming is still small (less than $50,000 in gross sales) and family owned, government reporting contains personal information about the individuals involved. It appears their concerns were justified. Now that the cow is out of the barn, EPA will not be able to undo the damage of private information already released but hopefully due to a recent ruling from the 8th Circuit Court, they will not continue to release private information.
~ Lorraine Newman
Below is a report from Ag News Wire concerning CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) reports filed with EPA and the Circuit Court decision:
“The Environmental Protection Agency has violated the personal privacy of tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers, according to a unanimous ruling issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
The ruling in American Farm Bureau Federation and National Pork Producers Council vs. EPA concerned the federal agency’s 2013 release to three environmental groups of a vast compilation of spreadsheets containing personal information about farmers and ranchers who raise livestock and poultry in 29 states. The case also related to similar personal information from farmers and ranchers in seven additional states that had yet to be released. The information included the names of farmers, ranchers and sometimes other family members, home addresses, GPS coordinates, telephone numbers and emails. EPA claimed that it was required to disclose the information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
“This was an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy by a federal agency in violation of law,” said AFBF General Counsel, Ellen Steen. “The court’s decision is a vindication of the right of farm families to control their own personal information. Farmers and ranchers have a strong privacy interest in their personal information, including their home address, even when they live and work on the farm.”
Montana Farm Bureau President Bob Hanson noted, “This was a real breach of trust and privacy. This information was supposed to be confidential, yet thanks to the EPA, any group could get it. It was a disgrace that a government agency didn’t show any respect for the people they are supposed to protect. We are thankful the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed that the EPA committed a gross violation of personal privacy. Although this decision comes late, it will hopefully stop Montana farmers’ and ranchers’ personal information from being used in the future.”
Farm families usually live on the farm and the court took note that EPA’s disclosures in this case could facilitate unwanted contact and harassment of farmers and ranchers by the FOIA, requester’s and others. According to Steen, “this case assures us that individuals still have a privacy interest in their personal information. The fact that government agencies may have that information and even store it on the Internet does not eliminate the individual’s privacy interest.” According to the court, “EPA’s release of the complete set of data on a silver platter, so to speak, basically hands to the requester’s a comprehensive database of their own, whatever their motives might be.”
“EPA now has to ‘recall’ all of the personal information it unlawfully released, but unfortunately that information has now been in the hands of the FOIA requester’s for three years, and many feel that the damage is done,” Steen said. “