How The Farm Bill Could Make It Harder To Track Down Pollution

Jan 27, 2014

Farmers across the country are hoping that Congress will soon pass a new Farm Bill. The bill helps guide agricultural policy. One version of the bill would limit the public’s access to information about agricultural pollution. And that is drawing interest -- and concern, from groups that don’t normally get involved with farm policy.

The EPA accidentally released the names and addresses of 80,000 farmers to environmental groups.
Credit Scott Butner/Flickr

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency messed up. And now the mistake has caused a fight between open government advocates and farmers. The EPA accidentally released the names and addresses of 80,000 farmers to environmental groups. That's a lot of information that's supposed to be redacted. When officials figured out they'd made a mistake, they asked the environmental groups to send the information back. And they did. The Washington Farm Bureau’s Tom Davis says the information breach still worried some farmers.

“Farmers, they live where they work. And it potentially exposes them to harm or nuisance by folks that may have disagreements with farming activities.” said Davis

Enter the House’s latest version of the Farm Bill. Ag groups want to use the bill to increase privacy protections for farmers. Two provisions of the bill would limit information the EPA and other federal agencies could give out under the Freedom of Information Act. The act allows people to request information from the federal government. But open government groups say these two provisions would force federal agencies to keep some information secret -- even though it shouldn’t be. They say it would prevent researchers from compiling statistical information that’s used in farm and public health studies. Angela Canterbury is with the Project On Government Oversight. She says the provisions would also make it harder to hold agricultural polluters accountable.

“If there was a situation where a corporate farm had polluted a waterway, then it would be far more difficult for the public to learn about that.” said Canterbury

Mark Stephan is a political scientist at Washington State University. He studies environmental information disclosure. Stephan says access to what the government knows is key to democracy.

“Quite honestly, if government knows something, and they can make it available to the public, it’s worth asking why they don’t.” said Stephan

At the same time, Stephan says more safeguards should be required to make sure family farmers’ information isn’t inappropriately disclosed. The House and Senate are expected to finalize the Farm Bill in the coming days or weeks. That’s when they’ll decide if these provisions are in or out.

Copyright 2014 Northwest Public Radio