By Corey Friedman
[Note: the following editorial was written for the June 26 edition of the Richmond County Daily Journal. It was read aloud on the N.C. Senate floor by Sen. Gene McLaurin, D-Richmond, the following day.]
The state Senate’s agriculture committee on Tuesday advanced a bill that would make investigations into suspected environmental violations on the farm a strictly clandestine enterprise. A farm pollution probe would be more secret than a homicide investigation under the proposed rules.
The N.C. Farm Act of 2014, a 16-page grab bag of agriculture-related legislation, seeks to exempt environmental investigations into farm operations from the state’s public records law. The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources could keep its inquiries into alleged wrongdoing permanently under wraps unless a judge says the public has a right to know.
“Complaints of violations of this article relating to an agricultural operation and all other records accumulated in conjunction with the investigation of these complaints shall be considered confidential records,” the bill states, “and may be released only by order of a court of competent jurisdiction.”
We understand that regulators may need time to sort fact from fiction and ferret out the truth when someone accuses a farm of causing environmental damage. There’s a balance to be struck between total information blackouts and releasing details that could hamper an ongoing investigation.
This bill doesn’t seek balance. It seeks unparalleled and unprecedented government secrecy.
Even the existence of an environmental complaint would be kept confidential. To our understanding, DENR wouldn’t be able to confirm that it’s looking into a possible violation when the public and press ask questions.
Contrast this with North Carolina’s public records law for criminal investigations, which states that the time, date, location and nature of a violation or apparent violation of the law must always be disclosed.
Do farm regulators really need more privacy to do their jobs than police detectives investigating murder, rape, robbery and arson? We don’t think so.
Factory farms and agricultural facilities may be private property, but North Carolina’s environment — our air, rivers, lakes, oceans and public land — belongs to everyone. When a business is accused of fouling our backyard, residents should have the right to know. When state regulators issue sanctions, we must retain the ability to hold violators accountable.
Sealing all complaints and leaving it to judges to allow their eventual release is backward. Records of state investigations should be presumed public, and if there’s a legitimate reason to hold something back, the burden to seek court approval on a case-by-case basis should rest with DENR or the farm it’s investigating.
When Rep. James Langdon, R-Johnston, introduced House Bill 366 last year with Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson, among three other primary sponsors, the farm bill made no mention of hiding environmental violations from the public. The push for secrecy came in a committee substitute adopted this week.
We call on the bill’s sponsors and all lawmakers who believe in government transparency to stand against the working draft. The substitute should be scrapped in favor of the former bill, which sought only to tweak existing agricultural policy.
If the General Assembly passes the farm bill in its current form, then North Carolina’s official state crop ought to be the mushroom. It’s kept in the dark and fed manure — as good a metaphor as any for how this reckless legislation would treat the public.
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