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by Erica Shaffer
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WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency has no plans to change laws governing public access to personal information submitted by owners of large-scale animal agriculture operations seeking federal discharge permits.

The agency stated its position on the issue in a notice to expand the comment period on a proposed National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) electronic reporting rule. The Clean Water Act authorizes the NPDES permit program to control water pollution by regulating point sources that discharge pollutants into US waters. As part of the process, NPDES-regulated entities submit addresses, phone numbers and other identifying information.

“The proposed rule is focused on modernizing existing reporting requirements by moving from paper to electronic submissions,” EPA said. “The proposed rule does not change the data and information that NPDES-regulated entities are required to report or how EPA manages these data and makes it available to the public.”

In 2013, the EPA released producer information to environmental activist groups in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. FOIA gives the public the right to request federal agency records. All federal agencies must comply unless the records are protected from disclosure by certain FOIA exemptions. The FOIA does not apply to Congressional or court records or records held by state or local government agencies.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association and its members protested efforts to make information from CAFOs available through the EPA web site. NCBA expressed concerns that the NPDES proposal was an overreach of federal regulatory authority, and would "create a road map for activists to harass individual families".

But EPA said all the information to be submitted electronically already is available because existing regulations require that information submitted in connection with a permit application and other data be available to the public. The agency said CAFOs and other operations have been regulated under the NPDES program for more than 40 years and permitted operations like CAFOs have been required to submit individual NPDES permit applications or NOIs for coverage under a NPDES general permit like any other facility seeking permit coverage.

“EPA did not propose any changes to the way in which it protects confidential business information (CBI) in implementing electronic reporting,” the agency said. “It is long-standing existing law that information required by an NPDES application form may not be claimed confidential.”
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