This story was updated at 2:14 p.m. EDT.
For the second time in a month, U.S. EPA is asking environmental groups to return another set of documents containing personal information of livestock producers.
Allison Wiedeman, chief of the rural branch of EPA's Office of Wastewater Management, told environmental groups in a letter dated Tuesday and obtained by Greenwire that the agency accidentally provided too much information on livestock operations in Montana and Nebraska in its package of documents for 30 states.
EPA has sent the environmentalists another version of the documents that redacts names and personal addresses of producers in those states.
The blunder comes as EPA attempts for the second time to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request on confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) by Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the trade group for the beef industry, is calling on EPA's Office of Inspector General to investigate the matter and threatening to pursue legislative action.
"Someone at EPA is either completely incompetent or intentionally violating federal law," wrote J.D. Alexander, the group's past president. "Either way, this action shows EPA cannot be trusted with sensitive information and should not have the authority to procure or disseminate it."
EPA didn't make Nancy Stoner, the water office's acting assistant administrator, or other agency officials available for an interview on the issue today. But the agency issued an emailed statement to Greenwire emphasizing its commitment to "openness and transparency" in its oversight of CAFOs and animal feeding operations (AFOs).
"After a recent release by EPA of CAFO- and AFO-related information under a Freedom of Information Act request, the agricultural community raised a number of privacy concerns," the statement says. "In response, EPA determined that some personal information that could have been protected under FOIA was inadvertently released. EPA has now redacted that information and asked the FOIA requesters to return the information."
Environmental groups began requesting CAFO information in October as part of an effort to examine EPA efforts to stem pollution from those facilities. In response to that FOIA request, EPA provided hundreds of pages of information containing the names, street addresses, latitude and longitude, and contact information for 80,000 livestock facilities.
EPA said then that it collected all the data from state agencies and that it was publicly available. EPA did the data-gathering after withdrawing a rule last year that would have compelled CAFOs to report similar types of data directly to the agency.
The release of the data enraged trade groups representing the beef, pork and poultry industries. In a March 22 letter to Stoner, they accused EPA of violating the Privacy Act of 1974, which prohibits the release of information about individuals without their consent. They also said the release was inconsistent with EPA's own FOIA policies.
The agency, the livestock groups said, took it for granted that all the data was already publicly available and did not first review whether any of it contained private information.
"EPA did not exercise the 'utmost care' in protecting the sensitive personal information contained in the released documents," the groups said.
In a follow-up letter April 4, EPA's Stoner told the livestock groups that the agency determined that all the information for 19 of the states was publicly available on EPA or state websites. Stoner said she didn't believe EPA violated the Privacy Act.
Stoner said the agency did find, though, that it had released some personal information in the data sets for 10 of the states -- Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio and Utah.
"Certain pieces of information received from ten of the twenty-nine states are neither available on the EPA or state websites nor subject to mandatory disclosure requirements under federal or state permitting programs," Stoner wrote. "The EPA has thoroughly evaluated every data element from each of these states and concluded that personal information ... implicates a substantial privacy interest that outweighs any public interest in disclosure."
EPA then asked that the environmental groups return all the original data and destroy any copies; the three groups complied early last month, saying they weren't interested in personal information but rather in records on discharges of nutrients, pathogens, heavy metals and pharmaceuticals from agricultural operations (E&E Daily, April 11).
After redacting portions of the data from the 10 states where the agency found privacy issues, EPA again released the data set to the environmental groups, as well as the livestock groups, EPA explained in correspondence to the groups.
But that data still included personal information on operations in Montana and Nebraska, so the agency Tuesday asked the groups to return it and destroy any copies.
EPA sent out a third version of the data this week that contained all the information of the second set, "except that the data EPA released for operations in Montana and Nebraska has been further redacted. The EPA has redacted additional names of individuals, telephone numbers, personal addresses and notations about private matters in these two states," EPA's Wiedeman wrote.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association said it was "appalled" by the whole situation. In a statement, Nebraska's two senators also said they were alarmed by the scope of the data release.
"This whole episode is more than a mere comedy of errors," said Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.). "It represents a pattern of disturbing disregard for the rights of our citizens."
Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), a former secretary of Agriculture in the George W. Bush administration, hinted that he thought the release was part of a "larger agenda to jeopardize American agriculture operations."
"EPA's disregard for the privacy of farmers and ranchers in Nebraska and across the country is, at best, woeful negligence, and at worst, a flagrant effort to aid organizations seeking to radically dismantle agriculture practices, with no regard for what it takes to feed the world," Johanns said.
Representatives for the Natural Resources Defense Council and Pew Charitable Trusts confirmed that their organizations received the new data set. Karen Steuer, Pew's deputy director of government relations, said her organization returned the second data set to EPA this morning.
"We requested the information because we were looking at what needed to be done and looking into whether the state databases would be an adequate substitute for a national inventory. We're still looking at that," Steuer said. "We've complied with every one of EPA's requests."
Earthjustice did not respond to a request for information.
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