The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is adding yet another chapter to the dismal saga of its strained relationship with American agriculture.
Its sordid history of aerial surveillance over ag operations, attempts to regulate farm ponds and ditches and efforts to corral dust clouds are just a few examples of how the agency has actively made life difficult for the folks who dedicate their lives to putting food on the plates of millions of people around the world. But this time, the agency really outdid itself.
Earlier this year, EPA provided information on 80,000 livestock operations to activist groups Earth Justice, the Pew Charitable Trust and the Natural Resources Defense Council in response to their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The information EPA released was littered with private material, including names, home addresses, personal telephone numbers and employee records—data that should have been protected under federal law. It wasn’t until after this information was released that EPA informed the ag community of the disclosure.
The stunning display of incompetence that followed is bewildering. EPA realized that it had disclosed too much information, attempted to redact the sensitive data, and released a revised version of the information. But EPA once again failed to eliminate all of the private material. The revision still included personal data, which should have never been disclosed under FOIA, on a number of ag producers from Montana and our home state of Nebraska. So EPA had to issue a third version with even more redacted records.
The first release of the information without scrubbing the records of sensitive data protected by federal law was bad; the apparent ineptitude to correct the problem on the first revision was worse, but here’s the real punch line: EPA’s only attempt to rectify its egregious errors has been to simply ask these organizations to return or destroy previous iterations of the information.
Many ag producers have been in the business long enough to know how EPA operates and how relentless these activist groups can be. The horse is out of the barn, and naively asking that sensitive documents be returned is not a solution to the problem EPA manufactured.
EPA now has a real mess to clean up. It should seek sworn statements from each recipient of the information to help prevent the use of the private data which has already been sent and resent. This sensitive data is protected for a reason.