Court dismisses AFBF lawsuit challenging EPA disclosure of farmer data

By Daniel Enoch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Jan. 28, 2015 - The American Farm Bureau Federation says it is considering whether to appeal a federal court's dismissal of its lawsuit seeking to block the Environmental Protection Agency from releasing personal information of livestock and poultry farmers in response to Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests.

In a statement, AFBF said it was “disappointed” to learn about Wednesay's decision by a federal district court in Minnesota.

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“Farmers, ranchers and citizens in general should be concerned about the court's disregard for individual privacy,” AFBF President Bob Stallman said in a news release. “This court seems to believe that the Internet age has eliminated the individual's interest in controlling the distribution of his or her personal information. We strongly disagree.”

The court concluded that no federally permitted livestock or poultry farmer is injured by disclosure of personal information - including names, addresses, phone numbers or GPS locations - because the Clean Water Act mandates disclosure of information concerning permit issuance.

For farmers without a Clean Water Act permit, the court found that so long as the farmer's personal information can be found somewhere on the Internet, EPA's distribution of that same information does not result in any injury to the farmer.

The court noted that a farmer with a public Facebook page used to promote the farm, or whose information could be found using a search engine or any state regulatory website in any form, has no right to sue to stop the federal government from compiling and distributing that information.

AFBF and its co-plaintiff, the National Pork Producers Council (NPCC), have 60 days to appeal the decision.

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The EPA in early 2013 publicly released a database of personal information about tens of thousands of livestock and poultry farmers, ranchers and their families in 29 states. The information was distributed to three environmental groups that had filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

AFBF and NPCC filed their lawsuit in July 2013 seeking to block EPA from responding to new FOIA requests for information about farmers and ranchers in six additional states.

The groups argued that privacy interests are particularly strong for farming and ranching families, who typically have multiple generations living and working on the farm. The lawsuit cited a Freedom of Information Act exemption aimed at preventing federal agencies from publicly releasing personal information held in agency files.

Farmers say they are concerned about possible lawsuits resulting from the misuse of their data including the disclosure of sensitive data such as records dealing with the numbers of animals on their farms and the use of pesticides and other crop protection treatments.

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