How The Farm Bill Could Make It Harder To Track Down Pollution

Jan 24, 2014

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency messed up. And now the mistake has led to a fight between open government advocates and farmers.

The EPA accidentally released the names and addresses of 80,000 farmers to environmental groups. That's a lot of information that's supposed to be redacted.

When officials figured out they'd made a mistake, they asked the environmental groups to send the information back. The environmental groups did.

But the information breach still worried some farmers, said Tom Davis, director of government relations for the Washington Farm Bureau.

“Farmers, they live where they work. And it potentially exposes them to harm or nuisance by folks that may have disagreements with farming activities,” Davis said.

Enter the House’s latest version of the Farm Bill, H.R. 2642. Ag groups want to use the bill to increase privacy protections for farmers.

Two provisions of the bill, section 1613 and section 11325, would limit information the EPA and other federal agencies could give out under the Freedom of Information Act, which allows people to request information from the federal government.

But open government groups say these two provisions would force federal agencies to keep some information secret -- even though it shouldn’t be. They say it would prevent researchers from compiling statistical information that’s used in farm and public health studies.

Angela Canterbury, director of public policy for the Project On Government Oversight, said the provisions would also make it harder to hold agricultural polluters accountable.

“If there was a situation where a corporate farm had polluted a waterway, then it would be far more difficult for the public to learn about that,” Canterbury said.

Mark Stephan, a political scientist at Washington State University, studies environmental information disclosure. Stephan said access to what the government knows is key to democracy.

“Quite honestly, if government knows something, and they can make it available to the public, it’s worth asking why they don’t,” he said.

Stephan likens the information to what can be found on the EPA's very specific Toxics Release Inventory Program, which provides address and contact information.

"If we're talking about big farms, corporate farms, how is that different than any industrial site? Now, if we're talking about private, family farms, I think that's where the rub is," Stephan said.

At the same time, Stephan says more safeguards should be required to make sure family farmers’ information isn’t inappropriately disclosed.

Tom Davis, with the Washington Farm Bureau, said the main purpose of these provisions is to protect family farmers, including farmers in the Northwest. He said their property could be vandalized by activists who don't approve of their methods of cultivating crops or producing livestock.

“You see a combine that’s used for wheat. Those are half a million dollars. Tractors are a couple hundred thousand. It’s just, the equipment is very expensive, and these are family farmers,” Davis said.

The House and Senate are expected to finalize the Farm Bill in the coming days or weeks. That’s when they’ll decide if these provisions are in or out.

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