Ecoterrorism: The Universal FOIA Denial

Not actual ecoterrorists.

In the process of gathering some documents for a story I co-wrote in DigBoston last Fall about the practice of farmers feeding garbage to pigs, I requested some documents from the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.

You see, a farmer who wishes to feed food waste to their swine must — in most states — first apply for a permit from their state’s department of agriculture. Usually farmers have to pay a small fee and undergo an inspection of their facilities before they’ll be allowed to practice the art of swill-feeding.

I obtained the permits for my home state of Massachusetts with little to no trouble. But in New Jersey, I hit a snag. They first told me they don’t have any records of the type I was seeking. Strange then, as I pointed out, that their statutes which regulate garbage feeding say that farmers fill out an application with the NJ Department of Agriculture before doing so.

After not receiving a response, I appealed to the Government Records Council, which mediates public records disputes. A conference call was held during which time some higher-ups in the Department of Agriculture’s records division explained that they originally rejected my request “out of agro-terrorism concerns.” This was the first time they had acknowledged having the records I requested, well over a year since my original request. It was also the first time I ever heard the term “agroterrorism,” but I let that slide.

I had to hold back from laughing while I imagined some kind of trash-terrorist reading swill-feeding application forms and then traveling to various farms to engage in some inconceivably primal garbage-based terroristic act.

After some doubtless-wasted words about the department’s decision to claim to have no documents pursuant to my request in lieu of offering their ridiculous explanation for withholding records, we agreed during mediation that the department would provide me with county-wide totals for the number of permits granted in the state.

Some time passed, and curiosity got the best of me. I ended up requesting the processing notes (the meaning of which I had to explain to the head of the public records division, the same guy who uses a comic sans font for his signature and believes HIPAA applies to dolphins), including emails about my original request. After a significant delay, I recently received them.

And wouldn’t you know it, nowhere in the department staff’s deliberation about how to respond to my request was there anything about “agro-terrorism” (or ecoterrorism, for that matter). Instead, the emails show they freaked out when I informed them that they should have the records I requested and went into the public-records-division equivalent of crisis mode, insofar as that’s not an oxymoron.

After I filed my appeal is when the legal folks stepped in. Their emails with the rest of the department are entirely redacted, but I suspect that somewhere beneath all the black ink is a suggestion that they simply mutter the word “agro-terrorism” during the mediation, and all will be forgiven.

In essence, rather than fess up to the fact that they lost (or were too lazy to find) the records I requested, they opted to say “nothing to find here, sir” in hopes that I would just walk away. So when I persisted and pointed out their mistake, they took a page out of the intelligence agencies’ book “How to Evade FOIA,” turning to the tried-and-true, get-out-of-jail-free card that is just one word: “terrorism.”