CAFO inspections from the air

Mar 23, 2012

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) increasing surveillance flights over feedlots in Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa are generating a controversial buzz among ranchers and cattle producers who chafe at what they perceive as an invasion of privacy that easily could be abused.

EPA has been taking aerial photographs of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in those Region 7 states in recent years as a means to more effectively monitor harmful discharges of pollutants into waterways, EPA officials say.

EPA hosted a public informational meeting to explain the inspection program, manure stockpiling, winter feeding areas and nutrient management plans on March 13 at West Point, NE. About 125 people showed up.

Kristen Hassebrook, Nebraska Cattlemen’s natural resources and environmental studies director, says many sheriffs in the four states have been contacted by livestock feeders concerned about aircraft flying low over their operations.

Hassebrook says EPA contends the flyovers reduce the amount of time visiting feedlots. However, the flights with pilots and EPA photographers accrue additional costs and lead to more inspections each year, she says.

“Perhaps they’re more efficient in targeting people, but they’re certainly not using less tax dollars. State environmental departments do the same thing,” Hassebrook says. “Everyone’s gut reaction is it’s just another example of an agenda that’s almost anti-ag.

When we hear the government is flying over our property, we feel they are out to get us.”

Some do not mind the flyovers because they feel they have nothing to hide, but others wonder how much they are going to allow their private property rights to be diminished and whether Google earth images even will be used to prosecute them, she says.

Hassebrook says she has noticed EPA getting much more aggressive the past three years in regards to environmental affairs, nutrient management rules, new air regulations, dust and greenhouse emissions.

“They’re much more aggressive, much more interested in pushing the envelope to the furthest degree,” she says.

Farmers, ranchers and livestock producers are in the forefront of the stewardship battleground, always improving their protection of soil, water and air quality, Hassebrook says.

“Environmental regulations are an extremely costly piece to producers whether time and money spent on record keeping or taking a day off to be in spected. … Producers internalize the costs completely. They don’t really get compensated.”

Many producers want an “open door policy” to show they are good livestock raisers and good stewards of natural resources, she says, but “how far are you going to let things go? Where do you draw the line?” EPA officials say their sole focus when flying over a feedlot is its commercial business operation, Hassebrook notes, but points out that when they take photos of pens and yards, they still invade the privacy of families who live on the property. Homes of family farms and ranches often are smack in the middle of their operations.

Currently, it appears that it is primarily Region 7 that is getting the flyovers.

Kristen Brown of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association said Texas feed yards are regulated by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“Their inspections are conducted through onsite visits in person,” Brown said. “So, we’re not aware of any flyovers in Texas.”— Mark Mendiola, WLJ correspondent