Sunday, June 10, 2012

Is The EPA Using Drones To Monitor Farms Breaking Environmental Laws?

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.

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. - John Maday, Drovers Cattle Network

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