In making their case for privacy, livestock farmers paint a menacing picture of what can happen when people know how to find them.

Drones with cameras could fly over their barns. Lawsuit-happy advocates could sneak around their fields. Unwelcome visitors could spread diseases to their herds and flocks.

Those are some of the bugbears presented by farm groups in their effort to clamp down on how much information the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can disclose to the public about farmers.

Providing addresses “gives activist groups a literal road map to farms they then can target for nuisance suits and for more serious claims, such as allegations of Clean Water Act violations,” said Dave Warner, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council.

The pork council and the American Farm Bureau Federation sued the EPA last year in federal court in Minneapolis over what it said was the illegal release of the names of farmers and the locations of their farms. In coming months, U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery is expected to rule on whether to accept the farm groups’ demand for privacy.

Here’s the problem with their case: Anyone with a computer can find that information right now.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has an online lookup tool where you can look up information on every farm that’s regulated by the state.

Since 2003, the “What’s in My Neighborhood” app on the website of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency allows anyone to see the hazardous waste sites, sewage treatment plants, leaking underground petroleum tanks and, yes, farms that require pollution permits under state and federal laws.

“We get many requests from people to better understand what’s going on in their neighborhoods,” said Jeff Smith, director of the MPCA’s industrial division. What the MPCA doesn’t get much of: Complaints about invasion of privacy, or reports of trespassers using the data for nefarious purposes.

I’m not saying that never happens. Hog farmer Rick Grommersch of Nicollet, Minn., filed an affidavit in court recounting the time in 2006 he caught three black-clad animal rights activists climbing over a fence so they could take pictures of a rendering box.

Fears of animal rights activists have been persuasive in Minnesota. This year, the Legislature took the extraordinary move of sealing off its new regulatory system for dog breeders from public scrutiny, because the breeders complained that the animal rights people would otherwise harass them.

But that’s not the real issue here. Agribusiness still wants America to believe that the best way for keep farm pollution out of the water and air is to leave farmers alone.

I have seen, and smelled, the perils of that approach. In the 1990s, North Carolina confronted the explosive growth of factory hog farms only after its crude system of managing manure led to massive spills and polluted rivers. As an environmental reporter there at the time, I toured enough ponds brimming with pink waste to know that these operations have more in common with heavy manufacturing than Old MacDonald.

“Industry’s been using this whole scare tactic for years to keep from being regulated,” said Scott Edwards, co-director of Food & Water Justice and a lawyer representing environmental groups in the case before Montgomery. “Are there people who can show up and protest? Yeah, that’s part of this country.”

Sometimes people go beyond that and “do stupid things,” he said. So far, no one in court has been able to point to any harm from the EPA’s release of information about farmers, Edwards said.

The bigger peril is cutting citizens off from information they can use to enforce the nation’s environmental protection laws. “We’ve built our clean water laws by empowering the public,” Edwards said. “It’s something we need to continue to do.”

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.