Senator Johanns and other members of the Nebraska congressional delegation sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency last spring questioning EPA’s aerial surveillance of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
In June, the Nebraska Republican proposed an amendment to the Senate’s version of the Farm Bill banning EPA’s use of the controversial tactic. The amendment failed by four votes.
Johanns describes the EPA as one of the most unfriendly agencies of the government and he says the practice of overflights must be stopped.
In the wake of Johann’s letter, federal officials held listening sessions giving animal producers the opportunity to ask questions about the controversial practice. David Miller explains.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s practice of inspecting feedlots from the air has drawn the ire of more than a few Midwesterners.
Woman: "In the majority of instances, you've taking photographs of someone's home in addition to a business facility. That's very different 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."
Dan Breedlove, Agriculture Counselor, EPA: "This is a commercial operation that's being photographed so we can argue about the case law, but EPA is on pretty sound, legal ground as far as the ability to do this."
Late last month, more than 150 farmers gathered in the Northwestern Iowa town of Arcadia to discuss their concerns about EPA inspection practices for concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
Stephen Pollard, EPA: "Do we count livestock after taking the picture? I have in a few incidences. It allows me to get a good guess on the number of cattle in the photo to determine if it's a large or medium operation."
Always looking for ways to increase efficiency, the EPA began aerial surveys as a cost effective method of verifying compliance with the Clean Water Act.
Officials say aerial inspections allow them to cover 80 to 100 facilities per flight. They are quick to point out the information gathered from 1,500 feet above the ground is only for preliminary assessment.
"We are trying to focus on the ones that are clearly conveying waste down to the streams."
CAFOs comprise the bulk of animal agriculture is in the United States. Operations with 300 head of cattle or more are regulated by both state and federal agencies. However, after more than two years flyovers, concerns are being raised about EPA’s aerial surveillance.
Nebraska Senator Mike Johanns and Iowa Senator Charles Grassley -- both farm state Republicans – adamantly object to the practice and both have sent letters to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson demanding an explanation.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa: "I'm very suspicious of what they're up to. It's big brother government, nosing around a lot on private property. They tend to concentrate on Iowa and Nebraska and if there's a national problem, why aren't they in all 50 states? I've had a briefing by USDA. I'm not satisfied with that briefing."
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Nebraska: "We asked real straight forward questions of Lisa Jackson, basically explain the program, tell us what you're doing out there. To this day, she has refused to answer that letter."
Karl Brooks, Enivormental Protection Agency: “It may be that when all is said and done, Senator Johanns and EPA will see eye-to-eye on a practice that is fully legal, it’s been reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s been approved by the Supreme Court, that’s okay. We have a lot of critics. We have disagreements with members of Congress. But at the end of the day if we can’t do our job better, and more economically, both for us and producers, that ought to benefit anyone in the cattle industry.”
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Nebraska: "She dispatched the regional administrator but he doesn't know waht's going on a national level. As U.S. senators, we have a right to know what's going on. She's stone walling us. She doesn't want to tell us something. That's the kind of cooperation we've gotten from this Administration."
While there was clearly some tension at the Iowa meeting, several Iowa cattle producers chose to focus on an improved relationship with Federal regulators.
Bill Couser, Nevada, Iowa: "When it comes to the flyovers, I was confronted by an individual the other day. And I said, ‘Do you have something to hide?’ and my next question was, ‘Have you Googled yourself on the computer?’ There are no secrets out there. Anyone can fly-over your house and take a picture. So are we hiding something? Is there something wrong? I think this is a challenge so let’s fix it."
While some producers may be concentrating on better relationships with government officials, Johanns and Grassley say they’ll continue to press EPA for answers.