Congressional bills could cripple FOIA requests for feedlot data from the EPA

UPDATE: The final version of the Farm Bill that passed both houses of Congress did not contain this amendment.

On the one hand, the White House is committing (again) to modernizing the administration of the Freedom of Information Act  and touting a new effort to open up agricultural data:

On the other, there are now multiple efforts to bar access to agricultural information sprouting on Capitol Hill. Open government advocates successfully stalled an amendment on farm bill secrecy this spring. The amendment is back, in multiple places.

The Farm Bill poses a great threat to the public’s right to know about agricultural and livestock operations.

farm-bill-foia-575 is warning that multiple bills could limit the EPA from releasing data relevant to the public interest:

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.

To be clear, these are not minor exceptions.

The authors of the Senate bill are “trying to create a huge hole in the FOIA by blocking the EPA from releasing any information it has collected on any owner, operator, or employee of a livestock operation,” writes Scott A. Hodes at the FOIA Blog.

“The language in the House-passed farm bill is even broader, barring the release of information on agricultural operations as well as livestock operations. …There may be a valid reason to not release information about small family farms, but the language in some of these proposals go way past that point and would create a huge Exemption 3 statute that blocks information that the public deserves to be known from being released via the FOIA.

According to, the campaign committees and leadership PACs of the sponsors of the bill, Senator Charles Grassley and Senator Joe Donnelly, have received $458,750 and $104, 891 from agribusiness, respectively.

To date, S.1343 hasn’t garnered much attention in the press or online at POPVOX and OpenCongress. That’s unfortunate. While the repeated release of personally identifiable information in FOIA documents by the Environmental Protection Agency clearly merits Congressional attention and oversight, these amendments are a gross overreaction to the disclosures and stand to damage the public interest.

Given the importance of public access to information about agriculture, particularly the large feedlots that provide the majority of the beef Americans consume and attendant food safety issues, limiting broad disclosure from the EPA would be a huge step backwards for open government in the United States.

Update: More than 40 organizations have joined to urge Congress not to include language that cuts off public access to this information, sending a letter (embedded below) to the committee.

As the letter points out, people who live near agricultural and livestock operations – particularly people who live near concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) – need access to information about these operations in order to ensure their health and safety. The law already requires federal agencies, when responding to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information about these operations, to protect personal privacy, including email addresses, phone numbers, and other similar information of non-government individuals. Indeed, after determining that it improperly released personal information related to CAFOs earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asked requesters who had received the information to return it to the agency. The requesters complied.

Beyond being unnecessary to protect personal privacy, language included in the House-passed version of the Farm Bill is exceedingly broad and vague. Because it does not define the terms “owners” or “operators,” it would extend FOIA’s personal privacy protections to corporate farms. In FEC vs. ATT, the Supreme Court found that Congress never intended to extend the FOIA’s personal privacy protections to corporations, and Congress must not do so now.

[Image Credit: POGO]