The American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council have closed the final chapter of their lawsuit challenging EPA’s release of farmer and rancher personal information, when a federal judge approved a settlement that secures the private information of thousands of livestock and poultry farmers in 36 states.
“This lawsuit has won a major victory for personal privacy,” said American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall. “Months ago, we won a court decision that vindicates the rights of farmers and all Americans to protect their personal information from dissemination by the government. This settlement is the final step, requiring that EPA scrub all personal information from the records involved and train its staff on the proper handling of personal information.”
AFBF and NPPC filed the lawsuit in 2013 after EPA released a vast compilation of spreadsheets containing personal information about farmers and ranchers in 29 states who raise livestock and poultry, in some cases including the names of farmers, ranchers and sometimes other family members, home addresses, email addresses, GPS coordinates and telephone numbers. EPA was poised at that time to release more spreadsheets containing similar information on farmers in an additional six states.
“Farm families usually live on the farm and releasing this type of information was a clear violation of their personal privacy,” Duvall said. “The information could easily be used to encourage harassment or even violence against farmers and ranchers.”
“Montana was one of the states that had farmers’ personal information unlawfully released before the lawsuit was filed, so of course the Montana Farm Bureau was very dismayed when this came to light,” said MFBF President Hans McPherson. “I can’t imagine the general public would be pleased to find out a government agency simply gave all of their contact information including home addresses, phone numbers and GPS coordinates away, especially when that information was considered confidential. We believe farmers’ rights to privacy needs to be protected, and we’re pleased the court agreed. We hope this is just the beginning of reining in these out-of-control rogue agency managers.”The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled last September that EPA abused its discretion by handing the FOIA requestors a “complete set of data on a silver platter … whatever their motives might be.” The court of appeals then sent the case back to the federal district court in Minnesota to decide whether to issue an injunction ordering EPA not to release the personal information.
The settlement agreement, reached with current EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, eliminates the need for a court order by spelling out exactly what information can remain in the spreadsheets released by the agency: only the city, county, zip code and permit status of an operation will be released. The agreement also requires EPA to conduct training on FOIA, personal information and the Privacy Act.