The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may stand behind its decision to release sensitive, personal information on as many as 100,000 farmers and ranchers to environmental groups in 2013, but now an appeals court is forcing the EPA to defend itself yet again in an ongoing lawsuit filed by the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) and the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF).
A Little Background
It all started with a 2013 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by three activist organizations – Earthjustice, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Natural Resources Defense Council – for EPA’s Office of Water records with information about concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) collected from farmers and ranchers in 29 states.
This information included the legal name of the CAFO’s owner, the owner’s mailing address, e-mail address and primary telephone number. Data from as many as 100,000 producers were released to the activist groups.
Agricultural stakeholders raised their concerns, leading the EPA to conduct its own investigation. The EPA ultimately stood by its decision but amended its response to the activist organizations, asking them to return the data. The groups complied.
The agency later reissued the data after redacting some of the information, though the NPPC alleged it still contained personal information.
Outrage from Congress, Farm Groups
Several congressional Republicans quickly criticized the EPA and demanded to know what it was doing to prevent future, similar releases. A Farm Bill amendment introduced by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) sought to block the EPA from distributing the names of farmers and ranchers to activists groups again.
In the wake of EPA releasing the data, the NPPC and AFBF filed an injunction in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota to block the government agency from publicly releasing more data under FOIA requests until a court could clarify EPA’s obligation to keep personal information about citizens private.
However, U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery dismissed the case and concluded the NPPC and AFBF lacked standing because “the information released by EPA was already publicly available and that CAFOs had yet to see any injury due to the release of the information.”
The NPPC and AFBF appealed shortly after the ruling and requested another stay preventing the EPA from releasing any other information until the case was resolved. The stay was granted.
Appellate Court Victory
On Sept. 9, a federal appeals court unanimously overturned the lower court’s decision. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in St. Louis ruled that “the associations have established a concrete and particularized injury in fact traceable to the EPA’s action and redressable by judicial relief.”
“We therefore conclude the district court erred in dismissing this case for lack of standing,” the ruling stated. “We further determine that the EPA abused its discretion in deciding that the information at issue was not exempt from mandatory disclosure under Exemption 6 [personal privacy interests] of FOIA.”
The case has now been “remanded for further proceedings.”
NPPC President John Weber praised the ruling.
“EPA’s release of sensitive, private and personal materials on more than 100,000 farmers and ranchers was an outrageous abuse of its power and trust,” Weber said. “We are very pleased with the Court of Appeals’ decision to reinstate our lawsuit to prevent the EPA from doing this again.”
He added, “NPPC will vigorously defend the rights and privacy of its producers against outrageous and unethical government actions.”