Have you noticed any small planes circling your local feedyard lately? If so, it could be the federal government conducting surveillance for enforcement of the Clean Water Act, and U.S. Senator Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) wants an explanation.

Johanns, who served as Secretary of Agriculture in the Bush administration, sent a letter this week to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson questioning the reported use of aerial surveillance. Nebraska’s entire Congressional delegation co-signed the letter.

Johanns also spoke with AgriTalk Radio host Mike Adams on Wednesday to outline his concerns.

“It’s happening, and I’m trying to find out just what’s involved,” Johanns says, adding that EPA has been flying small airplanes out of Sioux City, Iowa or Omaha, Neb., to take aerial photos of feedlots in eastern Nebraska, to assess compliance with the Clean Water Act.

Johanns assumes the agency intends to use the photos for investigations and potentially enforcement actions, but says the EPA has provided no information on the operation to Congress.  In their letter to Administrator Jackson, the state’s Congressional delegation asks for an explanation of the statutory authority under which EPA is conducting the surveillance, along with the purpose of the flights, their frequency and their use in enforcement actions.

“My concerns are many,” Johanns says, noting that in Nebraska, the EPA and the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality are cooperative agencies, but the evidence suggests the flights are purely an EPA operation. USDA, he notes, has used aerial photography to survey crop conditions and to verify compliance with conservation programs, but EPA has “little trust out in the country, and people will get fired up.” Congress, he adds, now is catching up with the program after the fact, and EPA is not an agency with a warm relationship with Congress.

EPA provided AgriTalk with 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.”

Read the letter from the Nebraska Congressional delegation to EPA administrator Jackson.