San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation

FOIA overreach shows how EPA works against ag
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By Craig W. Anderson

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is designed to encourage government agencies to release information, like it or not. But the EPA has either released information it shouldn't have or it has ignored, lost or stalled instead of releasing the information as mandated by the FOIA.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been regulating, enforcing and – among the various other activities it's not supposed to be doing – violating the personal privacy of tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers, according to a unanimous ruling by the Eighth U.S. Court of Appeals as revealed by the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Pork Producers Council vs. EPA.

What the lawsuit revealed was stunning to environmental groups. The EPA released a huge collection of spreadsheets containing personal information about farmers and ranchers who raise poultry and livestock in 29 states – including California. The information included names of the farmers and ranchers and family members, home addresses, GPS coordinates, phone numbers and email addresses.

The EPA insisted it was required to reveal all the information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Dangerous privacy invasion

"This was an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy by a federal agency in violation of law," said Ellen Steen, AFBF general council. "The court's decision vindicates the right of farm families [and] individuals to have a privacy interest in their personal information."

The EPA's illegal disclosure could cause the farmers to be harassed and to endure unwanted contact by those who requested the FOIA, and others. The court said, "EPA's release of the complete set of data on a silver platter…basically hands to the requesters a comprehensive database of their own, whatever their motives might be."

EPA encourages anti-ag groups

"The EPA, through actions like this, seems to be inviting the use of the FOIA by anti-agriculture groups," said SJFB Executive Director Bruce Blodgett. "Farm Bureau's very concerned about the EPA's release of information of such a sensitive and private nature."

EPA is the poster child for out of control agencies and is currently overly aggressive due to the freedom to do whatever it wants with the compliance of the Obama administration. "The agency's exceeding its allowable reach in many areas in addition to the FOIA," said Blodgett.

AFBF President speaks of 2017

"Looking ahead to 2017, we need to put a stop to regulatory overreach that threatens to put a choke hold on farmers," said Zippy Duvall, president, American Farm Bureau.

Example of FOIA gone bad

Mark Levin's Landmark Legal Foundation filed an FOIA request with the EPA to determine if senior agency officials were delaying key – controversial and politically damaging – regulations in 2012 until after the presidential election. When the FOIA request was received, the EPA was bound to preserve any and all documentation covered by the request.

Months of delay, misplaced documents and negotiating a labyrinthine bureaucracy that extended far beyond election day caused Levin to go to court and ask a judge to levy sanctions against the agency for its failure to comply with the request. More than 30 months after Landmark's original FOIA request the judge made his decision. While Judge Royce C. Lamberth didn't find in favor of Landmark regarding the sanctions he did produce 25 pages of denunciation covering the agency's stalling tactics, its attitude and its conduct.

EPA lambasted by Lamberth

Lamberth wrote the following in his decision: "Either EPA intentionally sought to evade Landmark's lawful FOIA request so the agency could destroy responsive documents, or EPA demonstrated apathy and carelessness toward Landmark's request."

"Either scenario reflects poorly upon EPA and serves to diminish the public's trust in the agency. The court is left wondering whether EPA has learned from its mistakes," Lamberth said in his decision. "Or if it will merely continue to address FOIA requests in the clumsy manner that has seemingly become its custom. Given the offensively unapologetic nature of EPA's recent withdrawal notice…the court is not optimistic that the agency has learned anything."

Begs Executive Branch for action

Lamberth also said, "This court would implore the Executive Branch to take greater responsibility in ensuring that all EPA FOIA requests – regardless of the political affiliation of the requester – are treated with equal respect and conscientiousness."

Mark Levin said, "The EPA has to learn that you can't save the planet by destroying the rule of law."

Left owns EPA

"The political left has used the EPA as if it were their private possession to use as they pleased," said SJFB Board member Brad Goehring, winegrape grower in the Clements area. "EPA encouraged lawsuits by third parties who would fly drones over anyone's land looking for reasons to file FOIA's based on what they'd seen in photos from the drones. This was used primarily for Waters of the United States [WOTUS] situations."

WOTUS erased by February 2017?

Goehring added that a member of the Trump transition team told him that "the highest priority of the Trump administration is to repeal WOTUS within the first three weeks after Trump's sworn in."

"Remember, the EPA was chartered to regulate one thing: auto emissions," Goehring said. "The modern EPA has morphed into a massive bureaucratic interest group out of control, effectively unconstrained by law or the constitution, a repository of environmental fanaticism utterly uninterested in the well-being of ordinary people or for that matter, in the actual environmental effects of its edicts."

He pointed out that only Congress "can impose permanent reform on an agency the central goal of which is the explicit or implicit confiscation of others' property, and the only route to that end is a requirement that Congress approve all regulations."

Preferential FOIA treatment

And EPA's bias came to light when the Competitive Enterprise Institute obtained documents showing that since January 2012, the EPA granted fee waivers for 75 of 82 FOIA requests from major environmental groups and only denied seven, giving green groups a 92 percent success rate.

At the same time the agency rejected or ignored 21 of 26 fee waiver requests from conservative groups.

A group of Republican lawmakers investigating the EPA's procedures wrote to the EPA: "According to documents obtained by the committee, EPA readily granted FOIA fee waivers for environmental allies, effectively subsidizing them, while denying fee waivers and making the FOIA process more difficult for states and conservative groups." Among the committee members signing the letter were Rep. Darrell Issa and Sens. David Vitter, Chuck Grassley and Jim Inhofe.

The lawmakers came to the conclusion that the "startling disparity in treatment strongly suggests EPA's actions are possibly part of a broader effort to collude with groups that share the agency's political agenda and discriminate against states and conservative organizations. This is a clear abuse of discretion."

"We know the Obama EPA has completely mismanaged FOIA, but granting fee waivers for their friends in the far-left environmental community while simultaneously blocking conservative leaning groups…is really no different than the IRS disaster," said Vitter.