Eye in the sky: EPA defends feedlot flyovers

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In response to criticism last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency claims it has legal authority and precedent for using aerial photography to monitor compliance with the Clean Water Act.

The issue came to light when U.S. Senator Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) announced he, along with all of Nebraska’s Congressional delegation, had sent a letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson questioning the agency’s motivation and legal authority for using aerial surveillance of Nebraska livestock operations.

Drovers/CattleNetwork posted an article titled “Johanns questions EPA on feedlot flyovers,” on Thursday outlining the issue, based in part on an AgriTalk Radio interview with Johanns. AgriTalk is a partner with Drovers/CattleNetwork, with both organizations under the ownership of Vance Publishing Corporation.

Following the interview, EPA’s Region 7 office, which covers Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, provided the following response. “For nearly a decade, EPA has used aerial over-flights to verify compliance with environmental laws in impaired watersheds. Aerial over-flights are a cost-effective tool that helps the Agency and our state partners minimize costs and reduce the number of on-site inspections across the country as the Agency focuses on areas of the greatest concern. For animal feeding operations, EPA uses over-flights, state records and other publicly available sources of information to identify discharges of pollution. In no case has EPA taken an enforcement action solely on the basis of these over-flights. EPA and other state and federal agencies also use aircraft for responding to emergencies such as chemical releases or to assess environmental disasters.”

In an article published today in the Omaha World Herald, EPA provided additional written comments. “Courts, including the Supreme Court, have found similar types of flights to be legal (for example to take aerial photographs of a chemical manufacturing facility) and EPA would use such flights in appropriate instances to protect people and the environment from violations of the Clean Water Act,”

According to the World Herald article, EPA acknowledges the surveillance flights began in 2010 in Iowa and 2011 in Nebraska. The EPA has conducted seven flights in Iowa and nine in Nebraska. The EPA Region 7 office has focused on those states due to the number of concentrated livestock feeding operations situated in watersheds with histories of contamination. The planes usually maintain altitudes of 1,200 to 1,500 feet during the surveillance flights, and the agency says it alerts state environmental agencies before it takes to the air, but does not notify livestock owners.

The EPA Region 7 website lists “protecting and improving water quality across America's greatest watershed, the Missouri-Mississippi Basin” as one of its top priorities.

The original Drovers/CattleNetwork article drew a range of comments from readers expressing a mix of opinions. Some see the aerial surveillance as an example of government overreach and misuse of authority on the part of the EPA. Others believe it is perfectly reasonable the EPA would use aerial photography as a tool for monitoring compliance, and see the issue as political grandstanding on the part of Johanns.

So what do you think?

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r moreland    
kentucky  |  June, 04, 2012 at 02:03 PM

folks it is just a matter of time before the fed govt begins using drones to monitor all farm activity. i am waitng on the tax to be paid to the govt for raising cattle. a simple drone fly over to get a head count of cows or anything else they want to tax you for. until the liberals are gone it is only going to get worse...

Farmers Wife    
June, 05, 2012 at 07:05 AM

You are exactly right. They are trying to take the food out of our mouths with all this garbage about "You are NOT entitled to the food you grow on your farm, or the milk you get from your cows, etc., to feed your OWN FAMILY. They definitely need to abolish a whole list of government departments and keep their stinking noses out of everyones business.

Western Oklahoma  |  June, 05, 2012 at 05:34 AM

I think the EPA, along with many other govt agencies, needs to be abolished. They enforce the UN's Agenda 21 and other un-Constitutional policies. They, along with others, are Un-American and tyrannical, imposing their will on a society which neither wants nor needs them. They have caused too many people and corporations misery and grief. It's high time the American people wake up to what has happened to their country and do something about it.

Jim Parks    
San Antonio Tx  |  June, 05, 2012 at 07:40 AM

I think the sooner this agency is disbanded the better off this country will be. 1984 is upon us.

Tampa Florida  |  June, 05, 2012 at 07:45 AM

I,d like to see how the EPA will keep buffalo and other wildlife from crapping in rivers and lakes. Oh wait, the EPA can't steal money from wildlife by imposing fines on them to further their radical anti-American agenda, so instead they attack the food producers of our society.

Kansas  |  June, 05, 2012 at 09:01 AM

I am a farmer and a cattle owner and I want clean water too. If these operations have something to hide from an aerial flight, then they need to clean up their act. This is not worth bashing the EPA if they are using a cost effective method of ensuring compliance. I usually like Johanns but I think this is a bit of grandstanding.

Vermont  |  June, 05, 2012 at 09:28 AM

I raise healthy cattle. Clean water SHOULD be everyones concern. It won't last forever. Those who mock the job of enforcing clean water regulations are the ones who "are not clean" themselves. Be a team player. Set a good example. Support clean water.

Colorado  |  June, 05, 2012 at 09:32 AM

Environmental Compliance is not a Black and White issue and is subject to a lot of interpretation. It is not like exceeding the speed limit. This is nothing short of Government harrassment of business activities. Looks like an unreasonable search to me and I think they need to get a search warrant to do these fly overs. In most of these regulatory agencies like IRS and OSHA you are guilty until proven innocent and the Business Owner has the added expense of proving his compliance. Sorry Mary but your idea that everyone in EPA is trying to do the right thing is naivete.

South Dakota  |  June, 05, 2012 at 09:34 AM

Mary; I want clean water too, however it is the state that is responsible for it not the federal government. If EPA and the State have probable cause that is one thing, but to do fly overs to check for compliance is gustoppo.

retired farmer    
NC  |  June, 05, 2012 at 11:14 AM

This is old news. DENR has been flying over animal farms in NC for years just hoping they will find a problem, either preceived or real. The flights are in addition to inspectors make at least one annual visit. Farming isn't an exact science and it doesn't take place in a controlled environment. If we are to have food, rule makers must understand this.

none of your business  |  June, 05, 2012 at 12:00 PM

I'm wondering what would happen if someone used "second amendment weapons" (as pondered by a television commentator, not thinking of his name right now) to take one of these down. I expect the gov't would press some charges, even if charges of endangering others with reckless use of a weapon. It would be interesting if some of these farmers had brought the plane into the Senators office asking for an explanation. That would have brought the demands by the congressional delegation, and the story, to a whole new level. I'm not suggesting anyone do this, but someone may.

NE  |  June, 07, 2012 at 08:28 AM

Shooting at aircraft is (rightly) a federal offense. The EPA is clearly overstepping with these flights, no question, but the proper place to "shoot" the flights down is in the courts and through Sen. Johanns' efforts, not literally.

c ward    
tx  |  June, 05, 2012 at 02:22 PM

EPA says they've established a "precedent" for their flyovers, but they've only been doing it since you know who took office. That's not much of a precedent, and i doubt anyone has hauled their butt into court & used the 4th amendment as a defense. Article [IV.] "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. " prec·e·dent /n.\ 1. Law . a legal decision or form of proceeding serving as an authoritative rule or pattern in future similar or analogous cases. 2. any act, decision, or case that serves as a guide or justification for subsequent situations. SOOO - the conclusion here is they're LYING!!

Montana  |  June, 05, 2012 at 02:43 PM

how long before some government agency has the right to come into our homes and make sure we are serving nutricious food, or that our toilets are "water savers" or that we are watching or listening to the "right" programs or fly over during working cattle to be sure we are doing to their specifications?

TX.  |  June, 05, 2012 at 05:47 PM

The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say) By James March 15, 2012 http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/all/1 Congress Looking Happy to Reauthorize Broad, Secret Spying Powers By David Kravets May 31, 2012 http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/category/surveillance/ Spy Drone Nearly Collides With Jet Over Denver 5/17/12 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNYUYZ86Zz8

Mama Cat    
Apex, NC  |  June, 05, 2012 at 06:44 PM

So the EPA is sending drones to fly over and spy on Midwestern farms. Methinks they violate the 4th Amendment, but that's just me. Me-also-thinks they are in bed with Monsanto and want to shut down non-Monsanto farms, but that's just me... ...or IS it???

Texas  |  June, 05, 2012 at 07:18 PM

Is there something wrong with clean air and clean water? From my view point its better to have the EPA fly over than tie up my time with a personal inspection of the premises. If you're worried about regulations ask the stock holders of Enron or the banks that failed if they wouldn't have liked a little more regulation.

Texas  |  June, 06, 2012 at 10:24 AM

Baaaaaa, Baaaaaa

Mark Ransford, DVM    
Hall, MT  |  June, 05, 2012 at 07:44 PM

I am a bovine practitioner with 30 yrs. experience. i have no problem with the flyovers. Pollution is pollution, and we all pay.

Lloyd Hudson    
Tucson AZ  |  June, 05, 2012 at 08:10 PM

I am not a farmer nor do I have a vested interest in any agricultural endeavor, What I am is a worried American that sees Government oversight in every aspect of our lives. Not what I read into the founding fathers intent.. Always keep in mind the story of the frog and boiling water..

wheatland, wyoming  |  June, 05, 2012 at 11:44 PM

Be careful what you ask for. Very interesting from someone from Montana. The business of agriculture is under seige and we are doing more to protect the environment than any industry I can think of. We feed the world and I can say that is more than the Federal Government is doing.

joe white    
louisiana  |  June, 06, 2012 at 08:17 AM

The epa has a responsibility to ensure the safety for the American peoples food supply and using the aerial method of monitoring seems to be the most cost effective . I fully support the continued use thereof.

Texas  |  June, 06, 2012 at 10:23 AM

Some of you just don't get it. First, the EPA "justifies" their activities as environmental protection, then the feds show up with "probable cause" for some other issue, whether real or invented. It's bad government gone crazy. This is plainly a violation of the 4th Amendment, hence, the EPA has no right. Those of you who support this intrusion really need to move to another country, like China.

Mike Clark    
Bluffton,SC  |  June, 06, 2012 at 11:25 AM

Just shoot them down , they are only flying at 1200 to 1500 feet . The government has no right especially the EPA to fly over someones land unless its for national security . Once Romney gets in the EPA will be closed down and the Head of the EPA will be out of a job plus all the croonies and friends she hired in that office.

UP Ur RearEnd  |  June, 06, 2012 at 02:58 PM

Right ON Mike, Shoot down their spy planes & anything else that is within range! We don't need any EPA period.

sd  |  June, 06, 2012 at 04:45 PM

First, feedlots on farms are regulated and inspected by the STATE, so what EPA (Federal) is doing is redundant at best. Farmers are NOT all out to ruin the environment. We live closer to any pollution created than anyone else.....so please give that a moment of thought. Realizing some are so zealous about 'purity' of environment they are incapable of believing anything they do not understand is not a threat, and others want anything THEY do not do or cause controlled to the unltimate degree of extinction.

farm mom    
ky  |  June, 09, 2012 at 03:52 PM

Last summer, during extreme flooding, we had several flyovers that sprayed our farm for various things without our prior knowledge or permission. We suffered a great deal of damage as a result. We do everything we can on this farm to avoid polluting water or air. We think its time for everyone to take responsibility for clean water, clean air and healthy soil. Greed is the real culprit here, and farming that has expanded past care and stewardship.

SD  |  June, 13, 2012 at 07:43 PM

The farmers who attempt to pump up their own products;' prices by claims that others' are somehow less healthful, safe, or 'pampered' than theirs are among the most greedy, IMO. Sell your pricey food by telling the virtues of pampering, hand raised, or whatever claim you may dream up, but NOT by denigrating others' products which are very possibly even better than yours. Unless you do the testing with an unbiased test facility of BOTH conventionally raised and 'organic, natural, or whatever name you attach to your 'pristine' product, it is not honest to claim others' food products are harmful in order to pump up your own sales. Fact: there are many large, and not so large farms whose family owners protect the environment diligently. There are many small farms in the sames ituation, AND a few in any category or size who pollute to the hilt, SMALL farms are not exempt from polluting! Do not be so quick to whine that "those with nothing to hide" should not fear surveillance....with todays' technology, do you want 'big brother' spying within YOUR house? Our farms are our homes, and we are vulnerable to mischief by those who enter our property without permission, including our air space!

South Dakota  |  June, 13, 2012 at 09:23 PM

There is a lot of ignorance here. I will not argue that there is much wrong with our government. Trying to ensure that we as a nation have clean water and clean air as well as a safe food supply is not one of them. It is very easy to throw around labels such as liberal or communist or socialist and not know what the heck they really mean. The next time you take a drink of water why not thank the EPA as you are not choking on it. Were it not for the EPA it would be contaminated with fecal e-coli, heavy metals, DDT and god knows what. Before you post BS do your self and others a favor - educate yourself and leave your ignorance at the door.


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