Privacy breach questioned in EPA flyover inspections

Jun 8, 2012

In a May 29 letter to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson, all five members of Nebraska’s congressional delegation demanded answers by June 10 to about 25 questions regarding EPA’s covert aerial surveillance inspections of livestock operations in their state.

U.S. Sens. Mike Johanns and Ben Nelson, and U.S. Reps. Jeff Fortenberry, Adrian Smith and Lee Terry asked Jackson on what statutory authority EPA bases its flyovers, which farmers and ranchers fear violate their privacy and could unfairly incriminate them.

The quintet noted: “Farmers and ranchers in Nebraska pride themselves in the stewardship of our state’s natural resources.”

The Nebraska delegates asked Jackson to tell them the number of flights conducted by EPA, criteria used to identify operations for surveillance, whether the flyovers resulted in fines for producers, how many more are planned, and if photos have been shared with other individuals or agencies.

After the secretive “spy-in-the sky” flyovers were discovered when aerial photographs of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) appeared last summer in EPA inspection reports and letters, officials conceded they were conducting the operations from planes to detect possible violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA).

They argue the flights are legal and a cost-effective means to monitor harmful discharges of animal waste from feedlots and manure lagoons into streams and aquifers—rather than do numerous onsite inspections.

As of 2010, Nebraska (862) and Iowa (1,607) had the highest concentrations of CAFOs on watersheds in EPA’s Region 7, which includes Missouri and Kansas. EPA has focused its flights over Nebraska and Iowa for at least two years, officials admit, saying the states have histories of contamination. The planes fly at an altitude of 1,200 to 1,500 feet without disturbing livestock.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R- IN, said while such government flights over private farm land are not new, EPA needs to be more transparent about the flyovers and its intentions. The Iowa Cattlemen’s Association also has stated that producers are angered by needing to comply with different sets of regulations imposed by state and federal governments.

Since the Nebraska letter to EPA was made public, reports are surfacing that EPA also has conducted such aerial surveillance over livestock operations in Illinois and West Virginia, said Kristen Hassebrook, Nebraska Cattlemen’s natural resources and environmental studies director.

“People are coming out of the woodwork. They are very frustrated. They’ve felt all alone,” Hassebrook told Western Livestock Journal (WLJ), commending Nebraska’s U.S. senators and representatives for asking EPA tough questions.

As WLJ earlier reported, EPA conducted a long meeting at West Point, NE, in March to explain the flyovers, but Hassebrook said it resolved little. About 125 cattle producers showed up and raised many concerns during heated exchanges.

The EPA flyovers have undermined work already done by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which has worked closely with regulated livestock operators to ensure compliance with the CWA, Hassebrook said.

Feedlot operators and ranchers have nothing to hide, but still are not informed as to when the EPA inspectors will initiate flights over their property, which they view as intrusive. “It’s a waste of time and resources. They are doubling up on regulations and costs,” Hassebrook said. “Why don’t they just call and visit the property?” EPA officials have acknowledged that the flyovers in Nebraska started in 2011, but the Iowa flights began in 2010— with nine in Nebraska and seven in Iowa completed those years.

For almost a decade, they have used aerial surveys to verify compliance with environmental laws in impaired watersheds, focusing on areas of greatest concern, they said, denying they have taken enforcement actions solely on the basis of the flyovers.

The EPA flyovers are continuing this year in Nebraska and reportedly are statewide, she said. There have been three reported this year. “What we’re hearing is they have found absolutely nothing in 2012. They’re wasting a day in the air when they could have picked up the phone and called DEQ.”

Aerial photographs could give faulty assumptions about a feedlot’s operation and expose owners to unfounded charges, she indicated.

Hassebrook wonders how much the surveillance flights are costing taxpayers. “We don’t know a whole lot about it, although it’s happening. We just think they are not necessary and are a waste of time and resources,” she said. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent