Last week, Waterkeeper Alliance and its eight Chesapeake Bay affiliates lost another extended legal battle against Maryland agriculture. Maryland's Court of Special Appeals denied the environmental group's legal pursuit of data on poultry farm nutrient management plans and enforcement.
Maryland Farm Bureau and the Department of Agriculture successfully defended farmer privacy in the case that began more than six years ago. In an opinion issued last Thursday, Maryland's Court of Special Appeals upheld the confidentiality of farmer information in nutrient management plans.
The Court agreed that the identities of farmers with current nutrient management plans are protected indefinitely under the law – not only their plan summaries but also other documents held by MDA.
"Maryland Farm Bureau is very pleased that the Court affirmed what has been our position all along – that nutrient management plans should be considered confidential business documents and identifying information should not be shared with the public," said Pat Langenfelder, Maryland Farm Bureau President.
But it cost the farm organization more than $130,000 in legal fees while University of Maryland's Environmental Law Clinic did it "pro bono" for Waterkeeper Alliance. The Law Clinic is the same group that also represented Waterkeeper Alliance for free in the case it also lost against the Hudson family early this year.
As in the Hudson case, Waterkeeper and its affiliates attempted to assert their authority as non-profit enforcers of Clean Water Act judicial precedents set by lawsuits – not by federal law.
How it evolved
The case began in 2007 with a Public Information Act request by Waterkeeper affiliates for nutrient management plan records of Nest Egg Farm in Princess Anne, Md. Maryland Department of Agriculture denied it, as it did a second request seeking details on all Maryland poultry farms.
The conflict escalated in 2008 as Waterkeeper Alliance filed suit to gain poultry farm names, nutrient records and enforcement records for the previous three years. When MDA surmised those enforcement records could be disclosed, Maryland Farm Bureau intervened to prevent disclosure of confidential information about the farmers, their locations and their business plans.
"We hope the university system finally takes action to stop these costly lawsuits intended to harass hard-working farm families," noted Langenfelder. "Instead, it should refocus its efforts on helping farmers stay in compliance with nutrient management and other state laws."
The Appeals Court also ruled that court costs be paid by Waterkeeper Alliance.