Federal Court Dismisses National Farm Groups' Data Privacy Lawsuit

Two national farm-related organizations, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers' Council, sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to bar EPA's release of member information involving physical addresses and details concerning the members' operation of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), CAFO information involving location and certain operational details must be made public as a condition of obtaining a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.  An NPDES permit must be obtained to operate the CAFO. 

In 2012, the EPA received Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from several environmental groups seeking CAFO information. In response, EPA released comprehensive data providing precise CAFO locations, animal type and number of head, and personal contact information, including names addresses, phone numbers and email addresses of CAFO owners. Before the release of information, the Department of Homeland Security had informed EPA that the release of such personal and confidential information could constitute a domestic security risk. This type of personal business information is specifically exempted form disclosure under FOIA. The defendants (EPA and intervening activist groups) argued that the farm-related organizations lacked standing to sue due to the plaintiffs having not suffered injury or facing the imminent threat of injury. 

The farm groups argued that they would be injured and that at least one member had already been physically invaded. However, the Minnesota federal district court determined that the farm groups failed to establish standing because they failed to demonstrate an actual or imminent injury, framing the issue as one over "loss of control of their personal information." The court then found that the potential release concerned information that was already publicly available and was easily accessible via the Web. The court noted that the one party that had suffered injury sustained it before the EPA responded to the FOIA request.   

Source - The Iowa State University Center for Agricultural Law