EPA stymied in effort to get farm data

Published January 1, 2000

The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), the data-gathering arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has refused to comply with a data-sharing agreement reached earlier this year with the Environmental Protection Agency. NASS is reviewing the agreement internally and discussing it with farm groups across the country.

The agreement, reached between officials at USDA and EPA, would require the agriculture agency to share with EPA data from its 1997 Census of Agriculture. Although state- and county-level data gathered by the census are already released to the public and available to EPA, the environment agency seeks access to individual farm-level data.

EPA wants the data to help it comply with a 1992 consent decree reached with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Every year, EPA is required by the decree to target new sources of effluent into water supplies. NRDC and other environmental groups argue that agriculture is the leading cause of most water impairment in the nation.

Farmers suspicious of EPA

USDA has been reluctant to share the farm-level data–which would include such information as the number of livestock on each farm and sales figures for farm operations–citing its proprietary and sensitive nature. Dean Kleckner, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, shares USDA’s hesitancy.

In a September 13 letter to Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, Kleckner called the data-sharing plan “totally inappropriate.”

“Letting anyone look at the information provided by farmers, who have been given a guarantee of confidentiality, violates the basic premise under which information and data is collected by the federal government,” noted Kleckner. “It is a violation of data privacy, if not legally, then certainly in spirit.” Section 2204(g) of Title 7 prohibits sharing data for purposes other than which it is intended.

Farm organizations and commodity groups had strongly encouraged their members and clients to accurately complete 1997 Census of Agriculture surveys. Had they known the information could come back to haunt them, it’s unlikely farmers would have completed the surveys as thoroughly as they did.

Kleckner warns that EPA’s attempt to access sensitive data will jeopardize USDA’s working relationships with farmers and arouse in them suspicion and distrust of all government agencies. As a result, farmers are less likely to willingly volunteer for environmental projects and information sharing, he said.

Kleckner has asked USDA for clarification of and possible changes to the agreement with EPA. According to Water Policy Report, he may also ask the House and Senate Agriculture Committees to investigate the agreement.

What EPA is after

In defense of the data-sharing agreement, EPA says it has the authority to collect the information it needs on its own, but doing so would be costly to farmers and the agency.

EPA’s primary purpose in seeking the information is to determine the number of animal feeding operations within a county or watershed. If the agency knows the number of livestock farms, then “these data can be used to inform regulatory decisions,” according to an EPA source quoted in Water Policy Report. The Census data might also find its way into the Watershed Information Network or other online database created as part of President Clinton’s Clean Water Action Plan.

The dispute over data has delayed by several months EPA’s release of effluent guidelines for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, part of the USDA/EPA Unified Strategy for Confined Animal Feeding Operations described under the Clean Water Action Plan.

As of 1992, there were approximately 450,000 animal feeding operations in the U.S., according to the first anniversary report of the Clean Water Action Plan. Large livestock operations are already treated as “point sources” of pollution under the Clean Water Act, required to hold National Pollution Discharge Elimination System Permits (NPDES).

If EPA is given access to farm-level data, it could target smaller livestock farms and regulate them as “non-point sources” of pollution.

EPA is required to release its effluent guidelines in compliance with the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement and Fairness Act, which mandates federal review of regulations that might affect a significant number of small businesses. EPA is thus expected to request an extension of its deadline for producing the effluent guidelines, until December 2000.

In the meantime, a bipartisan group of Congressmen has sent a letter to EPA Administrator Carol Browner, urging the agency to pursue voluntary approaches to livestock effluent reduction that do not require additional burdensome regulations.

Jefferson G. Edgens is an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy Research headquartered in Midland, Michigan. He can be reached at [email protected].