An attempt by the Sierra Club and Pew Charitable Trust to map livestock farmers throughout the nation is creating a tug of war between environmental organizations concerned about water quality and privacy advocates who claim the release of the information would make farmers and ranchers susceptible to attacks from animal rights organizations.
The debate most recently reared its head when the two environmental organizations requested details regarding livestock farming operations in more than 20 states. They say the information is essential to monitoring whether the operations are complying with Clean Water Act regulations.
In July, just before the EPA was expected to release the documents, the American Farm Bureau and National Pork Producers Council filed a federal lawsuit in Minneapolis on behalf of Minnesota farmers to halt the EPA’s release of information.
According to Pew Charitable Trusts, large-scale livestock operations have the potential to be a severe threat to nearby lakes and streams. Runoff wastewater can include heavy amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen — which in excess can be detrimental to aquatic wildlife — along with pesticides, antibiotics and cleaning fluids.
Farmers: We won’t let it happen again
While the organizations claim the information request was aimed at monitoring the farms’ compliance with the Clean Water Act, farmers are fighting back, saying the release would provide the public with their personal information, including addresses and phone numbers.
Farmers are portraying the argument as one that’s more about the right to privacy than public health concern. In a press release issued by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the focus is more on privacy than it is on the issue of the Clean Water Act.
“We are sticking up for the tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers whose personal information would end up in the public domain,” he said in a press release. “This lawsuit is about the government’s unjustified intrusion into citizens’ private lives.”
Farmers and ranchers were on high alert after the EPA released personal information in June in the mix of documents made public through a freedom of information request by three environmental organizations — Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pew Charitable Trust.
Farmers claimed the release violated the Privacy Act — and they didn’t want it to happen again.
“It had nothing to do with the environment and certainly shouldn’t have been released,” National Pork Producers Council Chief Environmental Counsel Michael Formica told Mint Press News. “That’s the completely outrageous part of everything that happened. On top of that I’ve got continuing concerns over the EPA’s continual efforts to press the line as to what they’re allowed to do under the law. They’re government officials, they are an enforcement agency, and just like the police, they have to follow the proper procedures.”
His views are echoed by American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman, who claims the EPA’s release of information would be a violation of farmers’ and ranchers’ privacy.
“EPA is in effect holding up a loudspeaker and broadcasting where private citizens live and where their children play,” he said in a press release.
The EPA said in statement it would review the farmers’ requests.
A battle of interpretation
The organizations requesting information on livestock farmers are claiming to do so in order to identify where farms are located throughout the state, since not all livestock operations are obligated to apply for a permit under the Clean Water Act if they claim not to discharge water in their daily operations
The information requested would have included the names and addresses of farm sites, along with GPS coordinates. Farmers believed environmental organizations could use the information to sue for Clean Water Act violations.
They’re right about that.
In February, the EPA sent out disks containing information, including personal details, about farming operations and their owners. The information was requested by Earthjustice and the Pew Charitable Trust.
Following complaints from the pork industry, the EPA requested the disks be returned. In a letter sent to the EPA, the Pew Foundation made the case as to why the release is necessary.
“Pew believes strongly that gathering basic information regarding the location, nature and extent of pollution sources associated with … Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations … is a fundamental first step to carrying out the objectives of the Clean Water Act,” the letter stated, according to the Star Tribune. “We were disappointed when the agency withdrew its proposed reporting rule.”
At the heart of the issue is concern among environmental organizations that livestock operations are discharging water without going through proper regulatory processes that would require them to receive a permit through the Clean Water Act.
The environmental concerns
In a 2012 report, the Pew Charitable Trust illustrated the devastating impact that livestock farming runoff can have on aquatic habitat and wildlife. The report looked at the Chesapeake Bay, a watershed that is worth more than $33 billion a year in terms of recreational and commercial activities.
The Pew Charitable Trust identified crabs, striped bass and oysters among the species impacted by pollution that includes excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus. These chemicals can be traced back to area farms, Pew says, pointing to livestock operations as potential sources of runoff.
“Nutrients can easily be carried by rainwater or snowmelt runoff, entering local streams and waterways that ultimately empty into the Chesapeake Bay,” a 2012 Pew Charitable Trust press release states. “The pollutants, particularly nitrogen compounds, are also conveyed to the bay via the groundwater that many of us use for drinking. In addition, ammonia gas from manure piles and fertilized fields rises into the air and eventually falls onto the surface of the bay’s waters and tributaries.”
In the press release, the organization points to unregulated farm operations as sources of the problem, claiming they need to be held to stricter regulations by the EPA.
“Some (pollutants) come from farm operations that fall below EPA thresholds for what legally constitutes a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation), or escapes regulation when it leaves the CAFO to be used as fertilizer on crops,” the press release states.
In another article published by the Pew Charitable Trust, Karen Steuer, director of the Reforming Industrial Animal Agriculture campaign, focuses on Illinois, which she identifies as the fourth-largest hog-producing state in the U.S. In 2008, 96 percent of the state’s lakes were listed as “impaired.”
“At the time, regional EPA officials noted that neither they nor the state knew the locations of the majority of the animal feeding operations in Illinois,” Steuer wrote. “The agencies have since agreed on a plan to implement the Clean Water Act and to locate and count CAFOs. But if the authorities responsible for protecting state waters don’t know the locations of the CAFOs that may be discharging manure into local waterways, water quality is at risk.”
For those seeking to monitor the industry watchdog-style, it’s all about location. Without that information, they’re unable to do their own monitoring of the situation — and they’re not relying on the EPA to do it, either.