LIVESTOCK producers were relieved last year when the Environmental Protection Agency dropped a proposed rule that would have made information on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) publicly available.
Now, livestock producers are again concerned after learning that EPA was obligated to share the sensitive information with environmental groups Earth Justice, the Pew Charitable Trust and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
In January 2012, EPA proposed the Clean Water Act Section 308 CAFO Reporting rule to collect information from CAFOs and make it publicly available and readily searchable through the agency's website.
Livestock producers and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security expressed concerns that this was not only a serious overreach of EPA's authority that could create a roadmap for activists to harass individual families but that the proposal would aid and abet terrorism and provide a very real threat to the nation's food security.
EPA later withdrew the 308 rule on these grounds, but livestock groups learned that the agency still intends to use the information it gathered to create a searchable national database of livestock operations, the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. said in a statement.
The regulation was the result of a 2010 sweetheart deal EPA reached with environmental groups, including NRDC. The deal was struck while EPA and livestock and poultry producers were in the middle of a lawsuit the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) filed over EPA's 2008 CAFO rule, which required large livestock and poultry operations that propose to or that might discharge into waterways to obtain Clean Water Act (CWA) permits. A federal appeals court ruled that CWA requires permits only for farms that actually discharge.
When asked why the groups sought the information, Jon Devine, senior attorney with the NRDC Water Program, told Feedstuffs the data requested by NRDC and Pew "will provide a greater understanding of what is known about industrial livestock facilities and help identify ways that safeguards against CAFO pollution can be improved to protect human health and the environment."
In its FOIA request, EarthJustice said its sole interest in obtaining the records was to understand "why EPA withdrew the CAFO reporting rule and whether EPA has a reasonable plan in place to learn about which CAFOs are likely discharging and to undertake advocacy efforts related in improving EPA's regulation of CAFOs under the Clean Water Act, if appropriate."
The information released covers CAFOs in more than 30 states and even includes many family farmers and ranchers who feed less than 1,000 head and are not subject to regulation under CWA. In some instances, farmers' home addresses, phone numbers and email addresses, as well as information on the operations' employees, were released, NPPC reported.
"When we reviewed the information submitted by the states and released by EPA, we were alarmed at the detail of the information provided on hard-working family farmers and ranchers -- family operations, including my own," said NCBA past president J.D. Alexander, a cattle feeder from Pilger, Neb. "It is beyond comprehension to me that, with threats to my family from harassment atop biosecurity concerns, EPA would gather this information only to release it to these groups."
NPPC president R.C. Hunt, a hog farmer from Wilson, N.C., said, "The release of data containing personal and confidential information is extremely troubling; we feel betrayed. We are very concerned for farmers and with the ability of those opposed to modern livestock and poultry farms to manipulate the data to advance their extremist agenda."
NPPC is reviewing the files EPA released to better understand the scope and content of the data.
"What's ironic," Hunt said, "is that, in the name of transparency, EPA released information in secret and violated the privacy rights of farmers across the country."