By Joe Duggan
A spy in the sky over Nebraska and Iowa has gotten under the hides of some livestock producers and their representatives in Washington.
The Environmental Protection Agency's aerial photo surveillance of livestock feeding operations in both states flew under the radar for nearly two years.
But now the flyover program, conducted to help enforce the Clean Water Act, has prompted a demand for answers from all five members of Nebraska's congressional delegation.
The delegation delivered a joint letter Tuesday to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, listing 25 questions about the legality of the surveillance and the privacy rights of business owners. Although the letter stopped short of calling for an end to the flyovers, the two senators and three representatives want to know more about their purpose.
"Nebraskans are rightfully skeptical of an agency which continues to unilaterally insert itself into the affairs of rural America," Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., said in a statement.
EPA representatives in Washington, D.C., did not immediately return messages seeking reaction. A spokesman for the agency's Region 7 office in Kansas City said he was not authorized to comment.
In 2010, Nebraska had 862 concentrated animal feeding operations and Iowa 1,607, making them the two leading livestock states in Region 7, says the agency's website. The region also includes Kansas and Missouri.
The livestock operations fall under an assortment of state and federal regulations intended to protect streams and aquifers from animal waste pollution, which can occur in the form of runoff from feed lots and discharges from manure lagoons.
The two-page letter was written at the urging of the Nebraska Cattlemen, an industry group made up of cattle producers.
"The frustration for livestock producers really is just the idea that the government has resorted to spying on facilities," said Kristen Hassebrook, the group's director of natural resources and environmental affairs.
The EPA apparently started conducting the Nebraska flights in 2010. During a follow-up inspection in Nebraska, a livestock producer was shown aerial photographs of his property, which he questioned, Hassebrook said.
In March, EPA representatives hosted a meeting in West Point, Neb., where they described the flyovers. Hassebrook, who attended the meeting, said about 125 cattle producers were present and many raised concerns.
"It got heated," she said. "The meeting started at 6:30 (p.m.), and I don't think anybody left until it ended at 10."
Among the questions posed by the congressional delegation's letter: How many
flyovers have been conducted? What are the criteria to identify an operation for surveillance? Have the flyovers resulted in fines against producers? Are the photographs shared with other agencies or individuals?
The letter also posed a much broader question: "On what statutory authority is the EPA relying to conduct aerial surveillance inspections?"
"Given EPA's recent track record of aggressive and over-reaching agriculture regulation, these surveillance flights raise a lot of questions," Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said in a statement.
At the March meeting, the EPA made it clear that it had conducted flights in both Nebraska and Iowa. Annie Beaman, water program assistant at the Iowa Environmental Council in Des Moines, said she had not heard of flyovers in her state.
While she wanted to know more about the flyovers' intent before passing judgment, she said the EPA sometimes draws criticism that she called "overblown."
"They are the rightful enforcement agency of our nation's environmental laws," she said, "and when they have tools available to them, I think they should do that."