The Environmental Protection Agency has told farmers and ranchers it is sorry for handing private information about them over to environmental groups, but agriculture advocates who fear attacks from eco-terrorists say it's like closing the barn door after the horses escaped.
In response to Freedom of Information Requests, the federal agency released information on up to 100,000 agriculture industry workers, including their home address and phone numbers, GPS coordinates and even personal medical histories. The agency later acknowledged much of the information should never have been provided, and even asked the recipients to give it back.
“If someone is setting out to create mischief at these locations, basically the government gave them a road map,” Mace Thornton, spokesman for the American Farm Bureau Federation, which is participating in a joint lawsuit against the EPA, told FoxNews.com. “It is very clearly an unjustified intrusion into citizens’ private lives by the government. And it is a betrayal of trust.”
The EPA said it collected all the erroneous disclosures, released in July of 2012, and sent out new documents with sensitive personal information redacted, an EPA spokeswoman told FoxNews.com.
“ … EPA determined that some personal information that could have been protected under FOIA was inadvertently released,” agency spokeswoman Caroline Behringer said in a statement to FoxNews.com. “EPA redacted that information and asked the FOIA requesters to return the information. All requestors have returned the original data.”
The information covered farmers and ranchers from 29 states and was released to the Natural Resource Defense Council, The Pew Charitable Trust and EarthJustice. Although much of the data is available on public databases, the EPA redacted personal data in an amended release. Those groups have not been tied to illegal acts, but concerned agriculture advocates fear the information can be spread to dangerous militants.
Large farms and cattle processing facilities have been targeted in the past by militant groups who believe they are cruel to animals and cause pollution. Two years ago, the Animal Liberation Front claimed credit for a fire that caused $2 million in damage to a farm in California’s San Joaquin Valley. The group issued a statement afterward ending with the words, “until next time.” No arrests have been made.
The Farm Bureau's suit, joined by the National Pork Producers Council, seeks to block the EPA from releasing information in the future that they say could put members at risk. The EPA says it will not release information that could put people at risk, but the two sides have not reached an agreement on what information should be covered.
“We are sticking up for the tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers whose personal information would end up in the public domain,” AFBF President Bob Stallman said in a statement at the time. “This lawsuit is about the government’s unjustified intrusion into citizens’ private lives.”
Stallman noted that the majority of farmers and ranchers live with their families on the farms they work and that by turning over their names and addresses for public consumption, the EPA is inviting intrusion into the privacy of farmers and their families on a nationwide scale.
“We support transparency and frequently advocate for increased government transparency,” Stallman said. “But publicly sharing spreadsheet upon spreadsheet of tens of thousands of peoples’ names, addresses and other personal information is not transparency in the workings of government – it is an invasion of the personal privacy of citizens.
Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @perrych