BOISE — An Idaho House committee supported Wednesday a move to seal off more data related to confined-animal feeding operations from the public eye, making it harder for the public to tell if state regulations are enforced.

A bill proposed by Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, would put all dairy nutrient management plans — and related proprietary business information — out of the public’s eye.

The plans essentially detail what becomes of animal waste produced at the dairies, which if not properly disposed of can pollute groundwater and soils.

Most waste plans are already hidden from public review, for facilities that participate in a state management plan program. This bill would more broadly affect reports of facility compliance inspections carried out by the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.

The proposal has reignited a familiar debate about what should be public and what should be considered a private business affair.

Last year, a similar law closed off waste management plans for beef feedlots. This proposal also comes on the heels of a critical report on the dairy industry, much of it based on inspection data, presented recently to House lawmakers by the Fruitland-based nonprofit watchdog Idaho Concerned Area Residents for the Environment.

Boyle said the bill is not intended to hide non-compliance issues. It is intended to give the dairy industry the same degree of records privacy that the beef industry enjoys, she said.

The other parts of the inspection reports have a “lot of business information” that should be confidential, she said at a House Agricultural Affairs hearing, before the committee voted to send the bill to the full House.

In an interview with the Times-News, Bob Naerebout, head of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, said that while the organization supports the legislation, it also believes in sound environmental practices. He also pointed to the industry’s investment in environment-based research projects.

The public would still be able to tell when ISDA notes a violation, Naerebout said. And he made clear his displeasure with ICARE’s use of public records — noting he only listened to its presentation and has not reviewed the group’s report.

“It is directly because of ICARE and how they handled records of people who didn’t even have violations that this bill came forward,” he said.

The problem, critics say, is that ISDA allegedly doesn’t note all violations. Alma Hasse, executive director of ICARE, said her study concluded that nearly one-third of dairy CAFOs reviewed have compliance issues, even if the inspector marked them as compliant, based on notes on issues such as phosphorus levels.

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She expressed worry about the law impacting the public’s right to know, adding that the feedlot law passed last year has made it impossible to provide a similar analysis of the beef industry.

Other industry groups, including Milk Producers of Idaho and Food Producers of Idaho, testified Wednesday in support of the bill.

ICARE aside, other groups have concerns.

Courtney Washburn of the Idaho Conservation League said at Wednesday’s hearing that the waste plan information allows the public to look for causes of contamination.

Kenton Bird, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho, said in an interview: “If this bill passes, it would be a significant setback for the public’s right to know about the activities of a state agency, and that’s the Department of Agriculture and how well the agency is doing its job.”

Of the existing exemptions for proprietary records, he said: “In my humble opinion, there are already enough loopholes to drive a milk truck through.”

Ben Botkin may be reached at bbotkin@magicvalley.com.

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