Jolley: Federal Flyovers? The tin hat brigade was right

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When I first heard of surreptitious EPA flyovers of feed lots in Nebraska and Iowa, I laughed.  “Ranks right up there with the black helicopter stories,” I thought.  Only people who wear tinfoil hats and cover their windows with Reynolds Wrap® (Trusted Since 1947) to keep the government from scanning their brains would buy into that nonsense.

May I borrow a roll of aluminum foil from someone?  I would drop by my local Hy-Vee to purchase some but I’m afraid the feds might get their hands on the supermarket’s scan data and find out what was included in my afternoon purchase of milk, beer and bread.  Men in Black 4 might start with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones knocking on my front door. 

“Mr. Jolley?” Smith asks.  “We’ve just received some information that you bought a quantity of aluminum foil on June 4, 2012, and during a recent flyover, we were unable to see into your kitchen due to some odd reflective material covering your windows.  Would you mind telling us what you did with the foil?”   (SFX: Helicopter noise in the not distant enough background).  Cut to quick shots of a troop of camouflaged and well armed soldiers moving stealthily through the woods in the back of my house, tight shot of large black sedan parked a few blocks away with man in dark suit talking into a shoulder mic, camera pulls back to reveal “Homeland Security” painted on car door.

A letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, cosigned by most of Nebraska’s congressional delegation, demanding to know what the hell was going on, made me rethink my anti-tinfoil hat position for just a moment. Then, Heather Johnson,, North Platte, Nebraska, wrote, “After recent scrutiny, the Environmental Protection Agency has revealed more details about its aerial surveillance of livestock feeding operations in Nebraska and Iowa.”

Memo for tonight: Spend evening in my workshop making a sign that says, “Welcome, Will, I am unarmed” and wrapping motorcycle helmets in tin foil. 

Johnson had learned about the flyovers from Kristen Hassebrook, director of natural resources and environmental affairs for the Nebraska Cattlemen, a beef industry group made up of cattle producers.

Hassebrook said, "It was by happenstance that we found out about them. They never told producers they were doing them, but when the EPA started showing up for inspections and had aerial photos of the producers' operations, people started wondering what was going on."

The EPA’s response to the letter was breathtaking in its disingenuousness. The media office of EPA's Region 7, which serves Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri, emailed a note to saying aerial surveillance is nothing new, and shouldn't have been a surprise to feedlot operators.

The EPA response claimed flyovers are a longstanding practice done to verify compliance with environmental laws and impaired watersheds. The sole purpose, according to the EPA, is to help identify water pollution in areas of the utmost concern. A further claim:  Congressional offices were briefed before any surveillance took place, as was the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.

Hassebrook insisted Nebraska Cattlemen was unaware of the practice and expressed a serious concern about privacy. "At any time they can request access to a property without notice. It's a frustration to producers who think they're complying with regulations, but yet, the government still doesn't trust them.  The focus might be the cattle in the pens, but the question becomes how much personal privacy a livestock producer has to give up before the government is satisfied.”

Defending the practice, EPA officials said the courts “have found similar types of flights to be legal and said they are done to protect people and the environment from violations of the Clean Water Act.”

In other words, “We are here to protect you from yourselves, whether you need our protection or not.  And it’s none of your damn business how we do it.”

Of course, satellites can do the same thing.  Instead of EPA photos taken from a helicopter hovering at 2000 feet, NASA can show you shots taken from 250 miles up with enough clarity to count the size of any herd in any feed lot in America as well as tell you the make, color and year of the trucks in the parking lot.  And that slightly overweight guy showing male pattern baldness getting into that brand new black F-25O with six bags of cypress mulch, a garden hoe and a loose screw driver (Philips head) rattling around in the back?  That’s Jack, the feed lot manager, social security number xxx.xx.xxxx -number redacted, home address and cell phone number are in our data banks and available upon FOIA’d request.

Face the sad facts, my friends.  Any semblance of privacy from the government’s prying eyes in the sky started to disappear over half a century ago when the first satellites with onboard cameras were launched.  It was a slow but steady erosion until Homeland Security (Preserving Our Freedoms) kicked it into overdrive after it was founded by G.W. Bush, November 25, 2002.  Don the hats, cover the windows and don’t do ANYTHING outside that you don’t want your neighbors to see.

Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Vance Publishing.

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St. Louis, MO  |  June, 09, 2012 at 11:12 AM

If you have a CAFO, and you have a NPDES permit, you're going to get inspected. The use of aerial photography to pinpoint CAFO leakage is not new and is an effective, established procedure. Why do we have this type of operation? Well, here's one reason: And another: Now, you may like E.Coli contamination of your fruits and vegetables, because waste gets into water and is used for downriver irrigation. You may like dead fish and polluted rivers. You may really think it's cool when waste discharge damages surrounding land and mucks up water systems. Most of us don't. Thankfully, the EPA works for all the people, not just a few rich CAFO owners and companies.

kansas  |  June, 09, 2012 at 10:29 PM

shelly you need to visit a large cafo and see what and how much happens to feed people in this world and find out how hard it is to feed you and follow regulations from educated idiots that are running the epa

Florida  |  June, 10, 2012 at 10:12 AM

The 'Bill of Rights' is irrelevent to the government of the USA today. The governments tyranny is growing so much and so fast that it may not be able to be stopped, and the TSA is a prime example, that with their success in violating our US Constitutional rights, that the EPA is now following their example. If things keep going in the direction they are,it will soon be time for all Americans to exercise their 2nd Amendment rights, and do what the Foundin Fathers suggested when our government becomes tyrannical.

Montie Rumsower III    
June, 10, 2012 at 03:46 PM

It is FAR past that time. We may have waited to long. The police state we live in now has absolutely NOTHING in common with the people and ideals that brought us here.

Ohio  |  June, 11, 2012 at 07:42 AM

Tin foil Hat?? Look, the people who blind their eyes to this sort of tyranny are both fast asleep and un-American. The moron who wrote this article used an idiotic, cliched, rambling approach throughout half of the article. Sickening and pathetic.

Ok  |  June, 11, 2012 at 01:08 PM

He still blames everything on Bush too, what are you going to do when your boy Barry gets tossed out in November, you'll still be blaming Bush I bet.

Daves Not HEre    
ga  |  June, 11, 2012 at 08:39 AM

Just because you live in the boonies doesn't mean you can do whatever you want. No one cares about your F-250 or male pattern baldness. Similar to worrying about your name in the phone book, or a photo of your house on google earth. If you dont want to be seen in public, wear a burka to the Piggly Wiggley. From this paranoid rant, its pretty easy to tell you were always a member of the Tin Foil Hatters.

Founding Fathers    
Omaha  |  June, 11, 2012 at 09:08 AM

Its "Founding Fathers", not "Foundin Fathers". They weren't a country band.

Kansas  |  June, 11, 2012 at 10:15 AM

Looks like I rang a bell with the haters when I wrote this piece. The EPA's activities put a whole new spin on the term 'flyover country.' So "Rancher,' soup kitchens feed the hungre from the labors of the real ranchers and farmers. Phone altruisim? You expect these people to work like they do for free? Of course, they're in it for the money, not that most of them make a lot of it. Jason, stay hiding behind your keyboard and you'lle be free to spew forth any rude and insane comment that enters your tiny little mind. And Daves Not HEre? You're not there, either. I have to assume you're an urbanite who thinks he's an expert in all things rural because you have a tomato plant growing outside your apartment window.

Kansas  |  June, 11, 2012 at 10:58 AM

Chuck, Stop being so defensive. When you put an article out there it's a risk you take. No worry if you speak truth. But "truth that won't bear doubting, won't bear figs."

California  |  June, 11, 2012 at 10:33 AM

This is nothing to sneeze about. The US will be/is using military drones to patrol the skies above us. This is a scary change. This the US military deploying an operation inside of the United States. To look out for our security. Whether or not the drones will have live ammo is unknown. Even if the they said they were unarmed , would you believe them?

Langley Va  |  June, 11, 2012 at 11:03 AM

Chuck, don't make fun of people using aluminum foil. Just because the CIA won't let you in on their above top secret materials does not mean synthetic telepathy is not real. Big brother can still read your mind, big brother was imported after wwii and fall of the wall. You are a journalist do your research. Foil is used for shielding from being microwaved and lasered.

greensboro, nc  |  June, 11, 2012 at 11:20 AM

What change? What is new except the technology used? Since the 1960's the Clean Water Act (passed by your elected congressmen) legally allowed the gov to monitor watersheds (remember when we had rivers on fire from pollutants?). They started with test tube samples, and even then - fly-overs. And there were people then who said we've lost all our freedoms. Same government, same citizens who fear everything. In the 50's Congress (you elected them) investigated many industries for for communism. In the 30's and 40's it was alcohol and organized crime. Since this rant started in the meat industry, go back & look up the Hormel case in World War 1. Nothing has changed - you have not lost your freedom & they are not coming to take anything away. Be glad you are not in Syria these days..

Daves Not HEre    
ga  |  June, 11, 2012 at 12:21 PM

Chuck, you presume. Therein lays the error. You presume I am an "urbanite". You presume that the EPA cares about your truck or your hairline. What the EPA cares about a bunch of bull (and cow) crap in the water supply. I grew up in rural Appalachia. Anyplace with a feed-lot and a rail-head we called "town". So don't think that because you freelance for a farm news site that you somehow are more rural; with your fancy 2 lane roads, and internet connection. But what happens without all those evil, oppressive government regulations? Well Chuck, real actual evil. Like Slag avalanches, strip mines, Copper Mountain, and if you are in cattle country, poop in the water. You can’t protect yourself from those things with tin-foil like you can with imaginary "black sedan" paranoia, Chuck. A slag pile on your shack, or contaminated water is the oppression our founding fathers would oppose, not the government forcing you be responsible neighbor. And frankly, because some irresponsible farmers and ranchers think it's just oppressive government regulation to not contaminate the water supply, is WHY we need the drone flights. Just like we need drones to "oppress" other criminals operating over a wide area, like drug smugglers jumping the border. Frequent misspelling mistakes don’t make you more rural either, Chuck. It just makes you qualified to paint kitschy sayings on old barn junk by the highway. Git-R-Dun.

Kansas  |  June, 12, 2012 at 05:06 PM

Dave, I presume you've long forgotten your rural roots. I presume you're so tied up in yourself and your bizarre sense of what goes on in the flyover states that you've lost your sense of humor and overlooked some of the real meaning of my column. I presume you really didn't intend to libel farms and ranchers as criminals with your 'other criminal' remark. But then...I could be mistaken.

missouri  |  June, 11, 2012 at 12:40 PM

The problem we have here isn't the large feed lots. The problem here is the small ranchers who don't care if their cattle stand in the creek and urinate and crap and wash it down to my house. Forget the fly overs, get some gunships over here.

Kansas  |  June, 11, 2012 at 12:53 PM

Rick, I'm sure that the feds will launch gun ships just as soon as they can figure out how to float one down the Platte River.

SD  |  June, 11, 2012 at 05:15 PM

Those who love to have "factory farms", please tell us specifically where they are. More than 97% of US farms and ranches are FAMILY OWNED. We owners also provide most of the labor force on our farms/ranches. We are NOT getting rich doing that work. We might be considered rich if we sold everything we have, but then who would raise your food. Most likely it WOULD be absentee owners because few people who do not love the work are willing to work 12 to 20 hours per day, year round for some of us. Sure we can take an occasional day off, but we work very hard and long to earn those 'riches' so many of you erroneously believe we are getting. All while YOU are paying possibly as much as 10% of you income to buy your food, the best variety and quality in the world and you complain! Talk about greed. It isn't the farmer who qualifies. Show us a more regulated business, a more inspected one. The flyovers bother me, and most of us because our farm or ranch is our HOME. Our children and grandchildren work and play here. Do you want your home routinely inspected by whatver means government may choose to use to assure that your work isn't somehow contaminating the environment? That isn't unreasonable, as home use of many chemical pesticides and herbicides is NOT regulated. Our field and farm uses ARE, and we must take classes in order to be allowed to use such chemicals. YOU are NOT!

Maxine Jones    
SD  |  June, 11, 2012 at 05:23 PM

What would you consider a reasonable income for a rancher or farmer? Return on our investment in our farms/ranches has been about 1.5 to 3% in the recent past. Figure out for yourselves what kind of investmentwe must have to make even a modest living for a family. We "out in the boonies" have to live with whatever we do to the land. Whether it 'runs off' or not, we get the first and worst of the exposure, IF we are foolish enough to polute. Cities get hand slap when they polute rivers, farmers get huge fines if their lagoons fail. Fortunately today modern feedlots (what the ignorant call "factory farms") make use of most of their 'pollutants, by composting and targeting to specific fertilizer needs. Commercial fertilizers are too costly to waste by putting on more than a crop needs, thus little to no run-off. Can you honestly say the same for your yard, local park or golf course? What about that oil or other fluid you may spill while working on your cars? All goes down the storm sewer and into OUR rivers, you know. BTW, I would prefer to drink down stream from a cow, deer, etc. than pick up the invisible, living natural 'critters' that cause horrible stomach distress to those hiking who drink from so called "pristine' mountain streams! And have done so with no ill results.

August, 21, 2012 at 08:36 PM

What Is Fredd doing about this.

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