May 31, 2012

Spying On Cows

Brett Smith for RedOrbit.com

In a episode that could likely be filed under ℠election year politics´, Nebraska congressmen along with Nebraska Cattlemen, a beef industry advocacy group, filed a complaint against the EPA for their use of aerial surveillance to monitor the compliance of livestock operations in the Midwest.

The bipartisan group of legislators who wrote the complaint letter included Reps. Adrian Smith (R), Jeff Fortenberry (R) and Lee Terry (R), as well as Sen. Ben Nelson (D) and Sen. Mike Johanns (R).

“Farmers and ranchers in Nebraska pride themselves in the stewardship of our state´s natural resources. As you might imagine, this practice has resulted in privacy concerns among our constituents and raises several questions,” the letter read.

Often the feedlots, where cattle are kept in confinement, are crowded and prone to the accumulation of manure, which needs to be properly disposed. The manure can lead to the pollution of soil and ground water.

The EPA defended the aerial surveillance program started under the Bush administration on Wednesday as part of its effort to execute the law, which sets standards for how livestock operations dispose of their waste.

Kristen Hassebrook, natural resources and environmental affairs director for the Nebraska Cattlemen, said her group believes the surveillance began in 2010.

"EPA uses over-flights, state records and other publicly available sources of information to identify discharges of pollution," said a statement from the EPA's Kansas City regional office. "In no case has EPA taken an enforcement action solely on the basis of these over-flights."

The legislators´ letter asks close to two dozen questions including why the inspections are being conducted, frequency of the flights, which farms gets inspected, what becomes of surveillance pictures or video, and whether the EPA is also looking for violations unrelated to the Clean Water Act.

"Nebraskans are rightly skeptical of an agency which continues to unilaterally insert itself into the affairs of rural America," Smith said in a statement on Tuesday.

According to Hassebrook, the EPA held a meeting in West Point, Nebraska, in March to discuss the flyovers in Nebraska and Iowa, Hassebrook said. About 125 cattle producers attended the meeting,.

EPA surveillance isn´t the only environment-related issue roiling residents of the Cornhusker State. Earlier this month, the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (NDEQ) held a series of public meetings in Albion to inform citizens on the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline and to provide a forum for feedback and discussion.

Fierce debate has local and national opponents of the pipeline objecting to the original route through a major Nebraska aquifer. In response, the company responsible for construction of the pipeline, TransCanada, has proposed and alternate route that avoids the aquifer.

A law, which passed in April, aims to speed the approval process by giving the decision on the alternate route to the state NDEQ, with final approval by Governor Dave Heineman. On May 23, three Nebraska landowners filed a lawsuit in a Nebraska district court that challenges this state law aimed at speeding up the approval of the pipeline.