A federal appeals court Friday overruled a lower court decision to throw out a lawsuit brought by the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its release to environmental groups of personal information on tens of thousands of farmers. In late 2015, a U.S. district court dismissed the NPPC-Farm Bureau suit for lack of standing. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in St. Louis ruled that “the associations have established a concrete and particularized injury in fact traceable to the EPA’s action and redressable by judicial relief.”
“EPA’s release of sensitive, private and personal materials on more than 100,000 farmers and ranchers was an outrageous abuse of its power and trust,” said NPPC President John Weber, a pork producer from Dysart, Iowa. “We are very pleased with the Court of Appeals’ decision to reinstate our lawsuit to prevent the EPA from doing this again.”
The case stems from the February 2013 release by EPA’s Office of Water to several activist groups, which filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, of extensive private and personal information the agency had collected on farmers in 29 states. (EPA gathered the information despite being forced in 2012 to drop a proposed data reporting rule for large farms because of concerns about the privacy and biosecurity of family farms.)
After objections from NPPC, the Farm Bureau and other agricultural groups, EPA requested that the activist organizations return the data, but the agency subsequently was prepared to release additional farm information it collected from seven other states. NPPC and the Farm Bureau also objected to the additional release, and in July 2014 filed suit against EPA in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, seeking injunctive relief.
The district court dismissed the suit, claiming that neither NPPC nor the Farm Bureau had standing to sue since some of the farm data could be obtained from other sources. The two agricultural organizations appealed the ruling and sought a protective order to prevent release of any farm information while the appeal was pending. The district court did grant the order. Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly praised the appeals court decision, saying there was a need to protect farmers’ information.
In its unanimous ruling, the 8th Circuit determined that EPA “abused its discretion in deciding that the information at issue was not exempt from mandatory disclosure under Exemption 6 [personal privacy interests] of FOIA.”