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EDITORIAL: Farm Bill undermines FOIA

EDITORIAL: Farm Bill undermines FOIA


House and Senate conferees are continuing to meet to resolve the differences between the House and Senate versions of the 2013 Farm Bill. We received a copy of a letter to the conferees from the National Freedom of Information Coalition, calling attention to a provision in the House bill that would undermine the Freedom of Information Act.

According to the letter, the House version requires the federal government to withhold information about agricultural and livestock operations, and a coalition of public information groups and others are urging the conference committee to strip out the language that affects the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Language in the House bill is an apparent reaction to an incident earlier this year when the Environmental Protection Agency improperly disclosed private information about confined animal feeding operations to several environmental groups. The EPA asked that the information be returned, and the groups complied. However, the EPA did not tell the agricultural operators until after it became public that their personal information had been sent out -- including names, addresses, geographic coordinates, permit numbers, numbers and types of animals, phone numbers, names and addresses of employees and, in some cases, lists of deceased family members.

The improperly disclosed producer information involved 80,000 livestock operations in the country, including more than 500 producers in South Dakota.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., wrote a column in April objecting to the EPA’s actions. He wrote:

“Nowhere in law is the EPA required to obtain and display such personal information; on the contrary, the federal government should be protecting its citizens from unwarranted attacks. Instead, the EPA has threatened the health and safety of South Dakota’s ag producers and their families, and has decreased the security of our food system.”

The National Freedom of Information Coalition letter states that the House provision is unnecessary to protect the information of individuals and small family farms, and that because the language is “exceedingly broad and vague,” it would prevent disclosure of any information about large corporations, including where they operate.

We oppose any weakening of the Freedom of Information Act that bars the disclosure of information that the public has a right to know in an over-reaction to the EPA’s improper disclosure of producer information earlier this year. The EPA acknowledged its mistake and has made assurances that it would not happen again.

We also recognize that the federal government collects a lot of information about individuals, private groups and small and large corporations, and it should take better care to ensure the security of that information.

There must be a balance between the public’s right to know about the government and the security of private, personal information of individuals and small ag operations that government holds. The House Farm Bill goes too far, in our view, by preventing the disclosure of any information about large-scale agricultural operations, some of which the public absolutely has a right to know about.

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