EPA says farmland flyovers are hunting for Clean Water Act violators

Ag/Outdoor, News

June 5th, 2012 by Ric Hanson

Concerns are being raised after the U-S Environmental Protection Agency announced it’s using airplanes to conduct fly-over inspections of large-scale livestock lots in Iowa and Nebraska. Josh Svaty, the E-P-A Region 7 Senior Advisor, says they are focusing on livestock operations that may be violating Clean Water Act regulations. Svaty says, “We don’t want to bother the people that are doing their very best and are in complete compliance but there are hundreds of animal feeding operations in these impaired watersheds and this enables us to more easily find some of the ones that might need a little more attention from us than others.” He says it saves taxpayer dollars to use the aircraft to so this type of surveillance versus driving up and down hundreds of miles of rural roadways to do spot checks of farmers and ranchers.

“Most of them are in compliance and are doing just fine,” Svaty says. “Some of the larger feedlots, in fact, some of them that we’ve worked with in the past, we’ve noticed have made significant, substantial improvements over the years.” The practice is raising concerns from livestock producers and legislators. Members of the Nebraska Congressional delegation recently sent a letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, asking for answers to those concerns by June 10th. Svaty says the EPA only takes still photographs and they avoid houses. He says Nebraska’s Farm Service Agency has been doing compliance flyovers since the 1980s so it isn’t a new concept. Iowa U-S Senator Chuck Grassley says he’ll likely join the Nebraskans in asking for more answers from the EPA.

“I’ll probably sign the letter without any insinuation that anything’s wrong but I sure have a right to know what in the heck they’re doing and what they’re up to,” Grassley says. “I’m more interested in that. Transparency will bring some accountability.” The Nebraska delegation is asking how many flights have been conducted and what statutes authorize aerial surveillance inspections. The delegation also wants to know if the EPA conducted such flights prior to 2010. It asks what images are made, how they are used and how long they are kept. Grassley says this type of flight is nothing new. “Going back to the 1930s and ’40s, we’ve had airplanes fly over farmland in Iowa and take pictures and all of the work at the county offices where measuring fields was done from the photographs that airplanes were taking at that particular time,” Grassley says. “If that’s what they’re up to, we’ve been involved with that for 60 years but I wanna’ know what they’re up to.”

The letter to the head of the EPA notes that farmers and ranchers pride themselves in the stewardship of natural resources, saying, “As you might imagine, this practice (of flyovers) has resulted in privacy concerns among our constituents and raises several questions.” Grassley says the EPA needs to be more upfront.
“Whatever the federal government’s doing, observing on private land, the public has a right to know,” Grassley says. “You’ve also got to remember though that out in California, they use a lot of airplanes to take pictures to see where people are violating the laws by growing marijuana.” Grassley, a Republican, says all farmers know they have to abide by the Clean Water Act. “I don’t think it’s very easy to cover up if you’re killing fish that you’re violating.”

(Radio Iowa)