Court Blocks Environmental Law Clinic Access to Farm Records

A September 14 Baltimore Sun article details a court’s decision to deny access by the University of Maryland School of Law’s Environmental Law Clinic to Maryland Department of Agriculture records about farm compliance with nutrient management plan requirements.  The action was requested by the Maryland Farm Bureau.

An Eastern Shore judge blocked the state Tuesday from giving an environmental group information about farmers’ compliance with a state law meant to curb polluted farm runoff into the Chesapeake Bay.

Worcester County Circuit Judge Thomas C. Groton III granted a temporary restraining order against the release of the information at the request of the Maryland Farm Bureau, which had gone to court Monday contending that state agriculture officials were about to give data illegally to the University of Maryland environmental law clinic. …

The Worcester judge’s ruling sparked an angry reaction from the Waterkeeper Alliance, the national umbrella organization for the Worcester-based Coastkeeper group. Scott Edwards, the alliance’s legal director, contended that state agriculture officials had worked with the farm bureau to withhold information the group has been seeking since April about whether farmers are following the state’s nutrient-management law. …

State officials say they agree with the environmental group that information about farmers’ compliance with the law is a matter of public record.  [Assistant Agriculture Secretary Royden] Powell said he has routinely replied to requests from members of the public wanting to know if an individual farmer has submitted a required “nutrient-management” plan with the state. Until now, he said, no one has complained.

But farm group officials insist the 1998 nutrient-management law requiring farmers to limit their use of fertilizer on crops also guaranteed that all identifying information about individual farmers would be kept confidential.

“You can say … how many are in compliance without having to release the name of every individual farmer, whether they’re in compliance or not in compliance,” said Patricia Langenfelder, president of the farm bureau. She questioned why any “third party” should be checking up on the state’s oversight of farms and said her real concern is that the clinic might be looking to file more lawsuits against individual farmers for allegedly violating pollution laws.

The Sun has followed up with a September 20 editorial criticizing the decision.

Imagine that you live near an industry that you suspect pollutes a river, a bunch of sewage treatment plants perhaps. You ask state government for records of how the plants have been regulated and what standards they must meet.

Although the agency is required to provide those public documents, officials hem and haw and, unbeknownst to you, reach out to a trade group that then files a legal challenge to stop the release of information. A local judge agrees to issue a temporary restraining order.

Now instead of sewage plants, think farms, and that’s the frustrating situation confronting environmental groups in Worcester County who got the runaround from the Maryland Department of Agriculture. It appears the agency has a greater allegiance to the Maryland Farm Bureau and the poultry industry than to protecting the health of the Chesapeake Bay. …

It’s bad enough that under a 2009 Anne Arundel County judge’s ruling, such plans are kept confidential (if released, the farmers’ names are blacked out). But for the state agricultural officials to delay release of information the public is entitled to see for months and then to actively work with the bureau to prevent the public release altogether doesn’t pass the — pardon another manure reference — sniff test.

September 16 Star Democrat article

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