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Our Views

Our Views Columns

Date: 5/16/2013

Title: EPA's Data Sharing is a Debacle

By Nebraska Sens. Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is adding yet another chapter to the dismal saga of its strained relationship with American agriculture.

Its sordid history of aerial surveillance over ag operations, attempts to regulate farm ponds and ditches and efforts to corral dust clouds are just a few examples of how the agency has actively made life difficult for the folks who dedicate their lives to putting food on the plates of millions of people around the world. But this time, the agency really outdid itself.

Earlier this year, EPA provided information on 80,000 livestock operations to activist groups Earth Justice, the Pew Charitable Trust and the Natural Resources Defense Council in response to their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The information EPA released was littered with private material, including names, home addresses, personal telephone numbers and employee records—data that should have been protected under federal law. It wasn’t until after this information was released that EPA informed the ag community of the disclosure.

The stunning display of incompetence that followed is bewildering. EPA realized that it had disclosed too much information, attempted to redact the sensitive data, and released a revised version of the information. But EPA once again failed to eliminate all of the private material. The revision still included personal data, which should have never been disclosed under FOIA, on a number of ag producers from Montana and our home state of Nebraska. So EPA had to issue a third version with even more redacted records.

The first release of the information without scrubbing the records of sensitive data protected by federal law was bad; the apparent ineptitude to correct the problem on the first revision was worse, but here’s the real punch line: EPA’s only attempt to rectify its egregious errors has been to simply ask these organizations to return or destroy previous iterations of the information.

Many ag producers have been in the business long enough to know how EPA operates and how relentless these activist groups can be. The horse is out of the barn, and naively asking that sensitive documents be returned is not a solution to the problem EPA manufactured.

EPA now has a real mess to clean up. It should seek sworn statements from each recipient of the information to help prevent the use of the private data which has already been sent and resent. This sensitive data is protected for a reason.

No honest and upstanding ag producer should be subjected to the harassment of activists—some of which have clearly adversarial agendas. This data breach, which publicized home addresses for some producers who aren’t even regulated by EPA, opens the door for unwanted and unwarranted attention from folks with an opposing view of American agriculture. But the implications stretch far beyond ideology.

Since 9/11, the agriculture sector has been especially mindful that our food supply could become a target of terrorists. Releasing sensitive data such as the locations and personnel of ag operations unravels all of the work done to strengthen our biosecurity. The government has an obligation to ensure this material does not fall into the wrong hands. The Department of Homeland Security recently expressed these security concerns to EPA when it was developing a reporting rule for animal feeding operations, which EPA ultimately withdrew. This recent FOIA breach threatens the security of our food supply, suppliers and producers as well as their families.

It’s no secret that EPA has a serious problem with modern ag production. EPA’s former administrator, Lisa Jackson, even acknowledged that her biggest regret at EPA was her poor relationship with rural America. But there is no excuse for reckless management of important private data entrusted to the agency.

This is an opportunity for EPA to improve its relationship with the ag community by taking quick and decisive action to contain this leak and prevent the further use and spread of personal records, starting with requiring recipients to sign sworn statements promising to destroy all copies of the sensitive material. It’s the right thing to do for those hardworking Americans who work tirelessly to feed an ever-growing global population.

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) is a former Secretary of Agriculture, and current member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and her family own and operate a cattle ranch in the Nebraska sandhills; Fischer is a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.