Environmental groups say they have returned U.S. EPA data on large animal feedlots that sparked a pair of congressional investigations into what lawmakers say is a possible violation of privacy laws.
The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice also agreed to destroy any electronic or paper copies of the documents, which contain the locations and names of concentrated feeding operations (CAFOs) in 30 states. EPA released the data to the groups earlier this year in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
"At EPA's request, Earthjustice is returning the information inadvertently provided by EPA in response to a Freedom of Information Act request regarding confined animal feeding operations," Earthjustice said in a comment. "The FOIA request sought information about industrial animal operations that contribute to the pollution of our waterways and air and was not intended as a request for any personal data."
The release of the data has for months rankled livestock groups and agricultural organizations. They have raised concerns that releasing it publicly would give terrorists easy access to the nation's food supply and said they believed EPA had released the data without undertaking a review of whether it contained private or confidential information.
Forty House members and eight senators have requested information from EPA on how it obtained the data, what it is doing to investigate their release and how it intends to prevent future releases from happening (Greenwire, March 28).
EPA in turn has said it didn't believe the data raised privacy issues because they were publicly available from states. But according to documents obtained by E&E Daily, EPA asked the three environmental groups in an April 4 letter to "return the original disk and destroy any copies of the disk or electronic or paper files containing information" provided in the agency's original FOIA response.
All three groups said they weren't interested in personal information but rather in records on pollutants such as nutrients, pathogens, heavy metals and pharmaceuticals that have run off agricultural operations into local waterways. They returned the data this week.
"As evidenced by our cooperation with EPA's request and our willingness to refrain from using these materials during EPA's extended review of them, NRDC has no interest in personal phone numbers, email addresses, or other private information about individuals," Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Jon Devine Jr. wrote in a letter to EPA dated Tuesday.
"Instead, as explained in our original FOIA request, we are interested in 'important records concerning EPA's activities that will contribute meaningfully and significantly to public understanding of CAFO pollution,'" Devine said.
Devine asked EPA to provide further information, though, on why the agency is withholding non-personal data contained in the records, such as information on the agency's progress on obtaining CAFO information. He hinted that his organization may appeal the agency's decision.
In a letter to EPA, the Pew Charitable Trusts asked Tuesday that the agency continue to collect CAFO information from states. EPA had originally intended to collect information directly from CAFO owners but withdrew the proposal last year.
Pew said they would continue to push for a national inventory of concentrated animal feeding operations.
"In reality, an EPA inventory would simply allow EPA and the public to make a rational assessment of the potential threats to water quality associated with CAFOs in various regions and to make informed choices about how best to address any such problems, particularly in regions of high CAFO density," Pew Deputy Director of Government Relations Karen Steuer wrote.
A spokesman for Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who has helped lead the congressional inquiry on the Senate side, said the senator still plans to pursue an investigation into EPA's activities.
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