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Why Are Environmental Groups Suing the EPA?

Photo from elias_daniel


Last month, a handful of animal rights/environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the EPA. Their claim was that the EPA has, essentially, abandoned their post when it comes to keeping track of the nation's factory farms. The move is intended to get them to, as the groups see it, do their job.

Lawsuits against the EPA are, shockingly, pretty common occurrences. (They even have a page on their website devoted to "citizen lawsuits" currently being directed at them.) But this one's trickier than the rest. While the fight's being waged between two regular adversaries (environmental groups v. factory farms), it's being waged over something that we all can relate to: Privacy.

The best place to start with this convoluted mess is, I suppose, at the beginning.

First, there was darkness. Then, the Big Bang came around, or maybe some kind of higher being, and there was no longer darkness. Then, a bunch of other stuff happened, blah-blah-blah. Until finally, farming corporations realized they could make a whole lot of money by cramming as many animals as possible into large pens. Not everyone was happy about this.

CAFOs -- or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, legalese for our nation's factory farms -- have long drawn the ire from environmentally-minded folks because of the poor conditions in which the animals live. But another key factor in their anger inducement comes from the fact that factory farms are among the largest contributors to the pollution of surface water in the country. That's a biggy. No water equals no life. So, a few years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in to try to stop this.

The EPA began forcing CAFOs to jump through a whole bunch of extra hoops when opening and operating their factories. Permits, inspection requirements, things like that. The CAFOs didn't like this so, as corporations are wont to do, they brought their case in front of a judge. In 2011 the case was heard, and the corporate-minded courts sided with the CAFOs, telling the EPA they shouldn't be using "pre-discharge permitting requirements." Once they were found to be polluting, sure, institute all sorts of penalties. But doing so beforehand was putting the cart in front of the horse, in the court's opinion.

To counter this, the EPA looked deep into the Clean Water Act and found Section 308, regarding the information that potential water polluters must release to the public. Basic facts such as where they're located, who's operating the business, whether or not it's polluting, and so on and so forth. So began the EPA's great collection of CAFO-related information.

This lasted for a very, very, very brief period of time.

Because in response to the EPA beginning their information collection, the nation's farm industry -- the top two dogs being the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau -- started attacking the EPA in the oldest fashion possible: Through intimidation and fear. "[They] basically said if you collect this information, terrorists are going to attack farms," says Tarah Heinzen from the Environmental Integrity Project, one of the groups in this battle. "All kinds of rhetoric to essentially make the EPA the perpetrator of a huge threat to the safety of our food system."

Just in case that didn't work, the CAFOs topped it off with a legal argument about the basic privacy rights of its farmers. See, a whole lot of farmers live on their farms. So, a lot of the information being collected may overstep the bounds of what's considered legally appropriate. "You had home addresses," says Michael Formica, chief environmental council for the National Pork Producers Council. "You had the cell phone number for one of my board member's wife, [the name of] his pregnant daughter listed, dental records, medical records, employee names, employee addresses..."

The EPA agreed that things were getting a little stalker-ish and stopped collecting the information. And that's when the big pig stuff hit the fan.

"We were really unhappy about that," says Heinzen. "So we wanted to see what was in the EPA's records when it decided to abandon this, to see if that information provided a justification for this decision." To do so, the groups submitted a Freedom of Information Act, and the EPA responded by dutifully sending along the information they'd collected for 29 states.

The CAPOs, as you'd imagine, didn't like this.

They filed a suit in Minnesota against the EPA for releasing that information. The EPA responded by putting a hold on all other FOIA requests and, actually, asked for the information back from the environmental groups. "That was fairly uncommon," says Heinzen. (And in this day-and-age of digital information transmission, kind of pointless. "The cat was already out of the bag," says Heinzen.) But this compliance was the last straw for the environmentalist groups, who pooled their resources together and filed suit against the EPA for not upholding their duty to protect the country from environmental pollution.

Which is where we're at now.

"What led us to intervene is that if the industry groups prevail, that would lead CAFOs to be shielded from the public," says Heinzen. "We want the EPA to do their job, which in part is disclosing public records whenever that's in the public interest, to regulate industries, and to not confuse a factory farm as a personal residence."

This "what is the EPA's job" question is the big one currently up for debate. While the activist groups believe it's around to help bring environment-destroyers to justice using any means necessary, that's not how the CAFOs see it. "Their job isn't to make a bunch of activists's abilities to file harassing lawsuits easier," says Formica. "Their job is to regulate the environment. That's different from creating a massive framework where people can sit at their computer and start plugging away."

The battle is certainly a role-reversal of sorts when it comes to privacy concerns. Over the past decade, the battle over a person's digital information has generally seen big corporations battling for more and more access, less and less privacy. They need that information to make their products work better, the argument goes. (And, more importantly, to have something to sell to advertisers.) But this time around, it's the corporations trying to keep information private.

"How would the environmentalists like us to put together a database of their home addresses?" asks Formica.

The main factor in this battle is determining just what constitutes legitimate information. "People impacted by the pollution from these facilities need information about how big they are and whether they've had any illegal discharges," argues Heinzen and her environmentally-minded friends. "If a neighbor was upset because of the smell or discharge... they're already going to know who owns the operation and the people who work there," counters Formica and those representing factory farms.

Is the information being collected by the EPA helping save the environment from pollution? And if so, is that information ultimately protected by the nation's privacy laws? It's now up to the courts to decide those tricky questions.

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