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EPA planes spying on ranchers? Lawmakers want answers


A Maine dairy farm's manure lagoon is seen leaking into a stream. The Environmental Protection Agency says its overflights of farms and ranches help detect pollution like this 2006 case.

A Nebraska cattlemen’s group is pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to stop pollution-control flights over ranches, claiming it amounts to spying on citizens. EPA, meanwhile, says the flights are an effective way to quickly spot -- and stop -- pollution from manure lagoons and other waste at large livestock operations.

Nebraska's five federal lawmakers joined the fight this week, demanding to know on what authority EPA is flying over and photographing private property. The lawmakers sent their demands to EPA chief Lisa Jackson on Tuesday, listing a battery of questions and demanding answers by June 10. 

EPA has been operating these flights across the country for nearly 10 years. 

"These operations are in many cases near homes, and landowners deserve legitimate justification given the sensitivity of the information gathered by the flyovers," Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., said in a statement. "Nebraskans are rightfully skeptical of an agency which continues to unilaterally insert itself into the affairs of Rural America."

The issue was brought to the lawmakers' attention by Nebraska Cattlemen, which represents the state's beef producers.

"The same ends could be accomplished by picking up a phone, sending an email, talking to a producer in person," Kristen Hassebrook, the group's environmental affairs director, told msnbc.com. "There is no need to spy on citizens."

"Another frustration," she added, is that "EPA does not alert livestock producers that the flight will occur or has occurred."

The flights, she insists, found "few potential issues" and EPA usually misinterpreted what was happening on the ground or photographed something that Nebraska regulators were already aware of and working with ranchers on. 

EPA plans to respond to lawmakers' questions by June 10. Spokesman Ben Washburn emphasized that the flights help "minimize costs and reduce the number of on-site inspections across the country."

"In no case," he added, "has EPA taken an enforcement action solely on the basis of these overflights."

EPA met with cattlemen in eastern Nebraska in March to address concerns.

Ron Coufal, who represents cattle feeders in Cuming County, told Brownfield Ag News his concerns were allayed after seeing the photos.

"I can see that it probably is saving our government money by having the overflights and not going to every feedlot to see if they’re in compliance," he said.

Hassebrook says privacy is the bigger issue. 

"Someone’s home, their children’s playground, their decks where they have family parties, are generally right there, smack dab in the middle of their business" and EPA cameras, she said. "Even if it’s not their (EPA’s) primary focus, you still have privacy rights in your home -- so I have serious reservations as to whether or not they should be taking such photos."

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