Iowa Public Television


EPA Ramps Up Aerial Survey's of CAFO's

posted on March 16, 2012

The Iowa Environmental Council and other groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, this week, alleging the federal watchdog hasn't done enough to keep nitrogen and phosphorus out of the Mississippi River. 

Both elements occur naturally, but they also come from sewage treatment plants.  And they are primary ingredients in fertilizer for crops, yards and golf courses.  Excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous are blamed for the “dead zone” -- a portion of the Gulf of Mexico incapable of sustaining virtually any marine life. 

In a lawsuit filed in New Orleans, the groups contend that EPA is required to set numerical limits on the pollutants under the federal Clean Water Act.

But even as EPA was getting sued in "The Big Easy," the agency raised a few eyebrows in Nebraska over its efforts to protect the nation's waterways.   

Joshua Svaty, Senior Advisor EPA: “We naturally anticipate that everyone is not going to be happy with EPA but we want them to understand that we are real people implementing real laws and we want to work with them and keep the communication lines opens.”

More than one-hundred farmers and ranchers gathered in Nebraska cattle country this week for an informational meeting with regional officials from the Environmental Protection Agency.

In the northeast Nebraska town of West Point, EPA representatives explained the latest enforcement policies and practices for controlled animal feeding operations, or CAFO’s.  Over the past two years, EPA has gradually ramped up aerial surveys of mid-sized animal operations in the Midwestern states of Nebraska and Iowa.  The agency’s aerial photography, including potential effluent runoff violations, was a point of emphasis throughout the meeting.

Federal officials argue aerial surveillance reduces the occasional implementation of on-ground inspections for CAFO operators that don’t have blatant violations.

Joshua Svaty, Senior Advisor EPA: “We found that its very cost effective and its also a very good way to see the enormity of the CAFOs that are doing the right thing and don’t really have a lot of problems.  It allows us to find those CAFOs that need a lot of work and direction and invest our time and energy there.”

But increased aerial surveys have drawn concern from dozens of rural ranchers weary of on-farm privacy… Chuck Folken, Lee, Nebraska: “With some of the pictures they showed tonight that they do find, I think people realize that its probably a legitimate for them to do but we still have concerns that their looking in on us. That Uncle Sam is watching us.”

Farmer: “How can you do this?  Don’t we have any privacy on our own land?”

EPA Official: “It’s well established that there is no expectation of privacy from the air.”

Female Attendant: “In the majority of instances, you’re taking photographs of someone’s home in addition to a business facility.  That’s very different than some of the cases out there where you’re taking photographs of some chemical manufacturing plant.  And so I think that’s a very broad interpretation of what privacy rights we have – especially from the government.”

EPA REP:  “This is a commercial operation that is being photographed.  We can argue about the case law but EPA is on pretty solid legal grounds as far as the ability to do this.”

Female Attendant: “Have you actually litigated a case where the CAFO and the home on the property is part of the case-by-case analysis?”

EPA REP: “No it hasn’t been litigated.  I guess we’d be looking for a case. We’re not focusing on the homes, we’re focusing on the feedlot for a minute of two and we move on.  So to try to characterize it as though we’re focusing on the home and evading privacy rights associated with activity in or around the curtilage of that home…I think that’s a mischaracterization of what we’re doing here.”

Representatives from EPA Region 7, based in Kansas City, Missouri, urged farmers and ranchers to broaden dialogue with the environmental watchdog. Many attendees urged EPA to understand the often variable conditions farmers and ranchers operate under.

Rancher: “There are times of the year that you have to realize we could come into a chronic wet period a week before planting.  We can’t pump and we cant get rid of our water because we have to plant.  If we don’t plant, we won’t have a crop that will take the nutrients out of the soil.  And we could get a continued wet period that could cause of all problems.  And sometimes there is no way around.  Its just the way its going to happen.”

Chuck Folken, a 36-year cattle rancher from Lee, Nebraska, acknowledged the rural meeting was a critical step forward for EPA.  But he urged agency officials to take the farmer feedback further than regional headquarters.

Chuck Folken, Lee, Nebraska: “There are a lot of issues that we hear that there are regulations that are coming from Washington and they haven’t even gotten here yet.  I hope that EPA communicates what they heard here tonight and takes that back to Washington.”


Tags: CAFO economy environment EPA farmers midwest Nebraska news pork production