WASHINGTON - Parts of the nation's $500 billion farm bill that Congress is considering would prohibit the government from disclosing some information about farmers or their employees, possibly preventing people from learning about nearby agricultural and large-scale livestock operations blamed for polluting water or soil.
The secrecy effort arose after the Environmental Protection Agency said it had mistakenly released names, email addresses, phone numbers and other personal information about some farmers and employees twice this year under the Freedom of Information Act. The EPA later determined it should not have released the information; in at least one case, an environmental group that received the data agreed to return it.
The provisions in the farm bill were intended to protect farmers who fear they would be targeted by animal advocacy groups.
The House version, now part of negotiations with the Senate, would prevent the EPA from disclosing the addresses, among other identifying information, of an owner, operator or employee of an agricultural operation. Other federal agencies could not release such information.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, blocked a Senate amendment similar to the House proposal.
"We must take care not to draw a veil of secrecy around important information about threats to the public's health and safety or government accountability," Leahy said.
Journalists and open government groups that want Congress to remove the proposals say federal law already bars the release of most personal information and the provisions are too broad.
"Members of the public have a right to know about agricultural and livestock operations that affect them, including where such operations are located," a coalition of 43 groups, including Society for Professional Journalists, Sunlight Foundation and Openthegovernment.org said in a letter Wednesday to House and Senate farm bill negotiators. "This information is especially critical for people who live near or share waterways with concentrated animal feeding operations."
Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., who wrote one of the proposals, said many farmers and ranchers live on their farms, so releasing corporate addresses of their companies is the same as releasing their home addresses. Crawford said farmers and ranchers should be able to provide personal information securely to the Agriculture Department, but they believe that environmental activist groups could obtain the material if it were shared with the EPA.
"Activist groups should not be able to leverage their relationship with the EPA to get this information that could pose a threat," Crawford said.
Colin Woodall of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association cited cases of people trashing farmers' property.
"There are more and more folks on the activist side that don't like what we do, and we want to protect our members," Woodall said.
An attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Jon Devine, one of the groups that received the personal information about some farmers, said his group wasn't interested in such details and returned the information when the EPA asked for it. He said the farm bill would go well beyond limiting such personal information and could jeopardize groups from getting facts they say they need, including the locations of farms.
Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group said he worried that the provisions could interfere with his group's ability to compile information about farm subsidies distributed every year, which the farm industry complains about. It's unclear whether the House language could be interpreted to restrict information about subsidies, he said.
His organization has run into problems from exemptions in the farm law in 2008, which prevent it from learning the names of some individuals who received subsidies through businesses.
The Obama administration last year withheld all or parts of government records more than 23,000 times under laws that prohibit the release of information under the Freedom of Information Act.
That was a decline from a four-year high of nearly 31,000 such times in 2011. The Agriculture Department has remained consistent in the number of times it cited any of 14 such different laws to withhold its records, an average of 462 times annually since President Barack Obama took office.