In Wyoming, Reporting Environmental Damage Could Land You in Prison

Concerned Wyoming residents who want to protect their state’s beautiful natural resources and keep their families safe from harmful contaminants have been silenced.

Earlier this year, the Wyoming legislature passed a bill making it a crime for citizens to collect information about the environment and report concerns to their state or federal government.

This means if Wyoming residents are worried about contaminants in their soil or whether the streams their kids play around will harm their health, they will be breaking the law if they test water or soil samples and send the results to their state environmental agency.

Why conceal this information instead of using it to clean up the environment?

According to a recent Slate article, a local environmental group found that many Wyoming streams are contaminated by E. coli bacteria. That contamination comes from cow waste that has seeped into waterways. Ranchers don’t want to change their operations, cutting off the source of the pollution. Instead, they chose to cut off the source of complaints.

We’ve seen this strategy from big animal ag interests before.

More than 20 state legislatures have introduced bills limiting public access to information about animal farming since 2011; four have passed. So-called ag-gag laws are aimed at whistleblower workers and concerned neighbors who share photos or videos from factory farms. This “gags” people from coming forward to report food safety threats, workers’ abuses, environmental problems, and animal welfare issues. Many of these laws are based on a “model law” drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in 2002. ALEC is a conservative group for state legislators funded by corporations. The group promotes an anti-regulatory, pro-industry agenda.

Of all the industries that would benefit from citizen oversight, the beef industry, which has seen drastic cuts in government inspectors, may rank the highest.

Here are just a few reasons why:

  • Working on a factory farm or in a slaughterhouse is a dangerous job. Workers labor for long hours, are paid little, and experience high injury rates.
  • Animal waste can contain high concentrations of Salmonella, E. coli, and Cryptosporidium. These pathogens, along with antibiotics, ammonia, heavy metals, and hormones can end up in waterways humans use for drinking and swimming.
  • Time and time again, whistleblowers have come forward with horrific accounts of animal abuses. In a recent investigation in Wisconsin, video shows workers cutting off cows’ tails with pruning shears, spraying them in the face with high-pressure water hoses, and dragging them by their necks with ropes attached to tractors.

The meat industry has argued for self-regulation to avoid government inspectors. And they have threatened workers who come forward with complaints of illegal and unethical behavior.

We live in a democracy; it’s time we start behaving like one. State legislatures should not be able to suppress information or muzzle citizen activism intended to improve our health and safety.

At a time when corporate influence in government has never been stronger and EPA’s resources are stretched to the breaking point, do we really want to silence the voices of everyday citizens who are trying to make their community a safer place to live? We need more citizen-regulators, not fewer. We need more participatory enforcement of public safety, not less.  We need more people engaged with government and less interference from industry.

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Not quite right. The offense is not the collecting of data but trespass for the purpose of collecting data. If you didn't know you are on "open" land and you collect data, it is unclear if you have violated the statute. The statute requires that the person have "the purpose" of collecting "resource data." Presumably if one trespassed for some other purpose and then decided to collect such data, that could be a defense. I feel sure that the legislature does not intend that reading, but they are stuck with what they wrote. In general expanding the coverage of criminal statutes by interpretation violates due process. The situation is similar to common law burglary statutes, which defined the offense as unauthorized entry into the property of another with the purpose of committing a felony or theft. (Many jurisdictions have expanded the coverage of burglary statutes by legislation) In any event, it has nothing to do with "Democracy." Presumably the law as passed is the reflection of the democratic process in Wyoming. What it does is make "property rights" superior to public health and other public rights. That is bad enough.
Thanks for your comment, Judas! I see what you're saying. If you keep reading the bill, the text becomes pretty vague where it arguably could be applied to data collected on public lands. So, someone could not physically step on privately managed land but collect information on public land that shows the impact of pollution from private landowners... and that could be illegal.
incredible story chad Edward hatten
good posts both chad Edward hatten
i don't think this law would stand 1st amendment
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