Farm Bill Conferees May Decree Blackout on Farm Pollution Info

November 20, 2013

You may smell that stench from a feedlot near your home, but the farm lobby and some of your elected representatives in Congress don't think you have any right to know who is creating it.

This year's Farm Bill — the fate of which hangs on House-Senate negotiations — could well include the most sweeping censorship ever of public information on agricultural pollution and the identities of the corporations that profit from it.

The version of the Farm Bill (HR 2462) passed by the GOP-controlled House July 11, 2013, contains secrecy provisions going far beyond any previously considered. One provision (Section 1613) prohibits the Agriculture Department from disclosing any "information provided by a producer or owner of agricultural land concerning the agricultural operation, farming or conservation practices, or the land itself in order to participate in programs of the Department of Agriculture or other Federal agencies." The Senate version lacks such language.

Another provision of the House Bill (Section 11325) prohibits EPA from disclosing "identifying location information" about any agricultural operation under the Clean Water Act or any other law. That may include the identity of a corporation owning a feedlot.

The decision on whether to include the House ag secrecy language is up to the conferees, who are now negotiating, mostly in secret. Such decisions are made by bargaining — trading one pet provision for another. What the conferees decide is usually likely to be approved by both House and Senate. Although there is huge political pressure for a Farm Bill this year, the political gridlock in Congress makes it unclear whether one will go through.

Access to information about agricultural pollution of the nation's water and air has been a political football for decades — as has the issue of whether there should be any state or federal regulation of agricultural pollution at all. Farms create a huge fraction of all water pollution via the fertilizers that create dead zones, the pesticides that affect reproductive health, and the antibiotics that create resistant bacteria. Such pollution is hard to regulate because it often comes via diffuse runoff. But some of it is from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and the fights over CAFO permitting and disclosure have been particularly intense.

A similar brouhaha broke out during the lead-up to the previous Farm Bill in 2008.

Food safety advocates wanted USDA to track food animal production to help staunch outbreaks of diseases like mad cow disease. The ag lobby objected to publication of the addresses and phone numbers of CAFOs — the so-called feedlot phonebook — on the grounds that they were tempting targets for terrorists. No terrorists appear to have attacked feedlots in the intervening five years, although some 10,000 to 20,000 E. coli infections from meat are estimated to occur each year in the U.S., some of them fatal. Congress decided in 2008 to protect the feedlot owners, rather than to give the public information.

The ag lobby's clout was demonstrated again when it forced EPA to withdraw its proposed CAFO Reporting Rule in July of 2012. That rule would have required large livestock and poultry operators to report information about their operations to EPA. EPA's withdrawal of the rule left the public in the dark and left regulation of CAFO pollution (if any) to the states. The withdrawal leaves EPA nearly blind to CAFO pollution.

This year, a political drama was whipped up by Congressional Republicans, who criticized EPA for releasing feedlot information to three environmental groups who had requested it under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). EPA had said at the time that the data was all publicly available. The ag industry protested, and Congressional Republicans held hearings and called for investigations. Then EPA asked the environmental groups to return the released documents — and the groups did so.

Now that incident is being cited as justification for extending secrecy on agricultural pollution beyond its current levels.