DES MOINES, Iowa - Midwest ranchers have never been enamoured with environmental regulators, but they really began to complain after learning federal inspectors were flying over their land to look for problems.
The Environmental Protection Agency flies over power plants and other facilities nationwide to identify potential air, water and land pollution. It began using began using aerial surveillance in the Midwest in 2010 to check farms for violations of federal clean water regulations.
Ranchers who object to the program said they're not trying to hide anything. It's the quiet approach the EPA took with the program designed to spot illegal disposal of animal waste that they find upsetting. Most were not even aware of the flyovers until regional EPA officials mentioned it at a meeting three months ago.
"For me, it just creeps into the 'Big Brother is watching you' area, to where the government just feels like it's getting more and more intrusive," said Buck Wehrbein, who manages a cattle feeding operation in Mead, Neb., about 30 miles west of Omaha.
EPA officials explained during a meeting with ranchers in West Point, Neb., that they lease small planes that fly EPA staffers over cattle operations. The staffers take photographs as they seek evidence of illegal animal waste running off into rivers and streams.
Ranchers complained to their members of Congress, who responded angrily and then grew even more annoyed by what they considered the EPA's sluggish response to their inquiries for information about the flights. Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns, a Republican, introduced an amendment to a multifaceted farm bill to stop the flights, but it fell four votes short of the 60 needed. Although most backers of the amendment were Republicans, 10 Democrats supported the proposal.
"EPA has been deliberately ambiguous when it comes to the size and scope of this program," Johanns said in a statement. "EPA must be honest about this program or cease it entirely, and I will continue pressing for this information on behalf of all concerned farmers and ranchers."
U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, met June 25 with top EPA administrators to find out why the agency was flying over farms when there was no indication that regulations had been violated. He also sought more information about why the EPA flew over farms that weren't required to have discharge permits.
"The EPA has come back with some answers, and those are being reviewed now," Grassley spokeswoman Jill Kozeny said. The senator may go back to the EPA again for more detail, she added.
EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks, who oversees Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska from his Kansas City office, didn't respond to interview requests from The Associated Press.
In response to more than two dozen questions sent by Nebraska's congressional delegation to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson on May 29, Brooks released a five-page document about the flights.
It said the agency conducted three flyovers in Iowa in 2010, five in 2011, and one this year. In Nebraska, there were six flights last year and three this year.
Two more flights are planned this year in each state.
The EPA said the flights don't target individual farms and focus on areas with many animal feeding operations or watersheds where the state has identified streams polluted by animal waste.
As a result of the flights, the EPA said, it has taken 39 enforcement actions against Iowa livestock farmers and 14 against Nebraska producers.
Brooks said the agency uses the flights to minimize costs and reduce the number of on-site inspections.
"With one combined animal feeding operation inspection costing upwards of $10,000, and Region 7 responsible for improving water quality in about 1,800 miles of impaired Nebraska waters, across 50,000 square miles, EPA uses tools, like airplane flights, to focus our resources and compliance efforts where they are needed most," he wrote.
Brooks' response hasn't satisfied congressmen such as Republican Rep. Adrian Smith, whose rural district covers about three-fourths of Nebraska. He said state inspectors already have the authority to inspect ranches and he isn't sure the EPA's flyovers are needed. He is co-sponsoring a bill introduced by Rep. Shelly Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, to prohibit the EPA from using farm flyovers to enforce the Clean Water Act unless the agency has written voluntary consent, provided public notice or obtained a court order.
The EPA conducted flyovers of West Virginia farms in 2010.
"I would like to see those aerial surveillance flights stopped," Smith said. "I want to make sure we can move forward with good policy, and I'm studying how we should move forward."
Several environmental groups have supported the EPA flights.
Scott Edwards, a spokesman for Food and Water Watch, a Washington-based non-profit environmental group, said state and federal agencies must be innovative in stopping pollution. The protests by ranchers and rural members of Congress are typical when government tries to increase inspections, Edwards said.
"There is always this over-the-top pushback, and it's across the country that agriculture needs to somehow be different," he said.
Marc Yaggi, executive director of the New York-based Waterkeeper Alliance, agreed.
"If taking to the sky is going to uncover illegal activities that are posing threats to human health downstream, we're all for it," he said.
While Nebraska farmers reacted strongly to the flyovers, Iowa farm groups have been more subdued.
"We are really not as excited about that as they have been in Nebraska," said Dal Grooms, spokeswoman for the Iowa Cattlemen's Association.
He said his organization is working with the EPA to focus more on education than on fines.
Chuck Folken, who runs a third generation family cattle feeding operation near Leigh, Neb., about 90 miles northwest of Omaha, said farmers he knows think the EPA just wants to levy more fines. They want Congress to rein in the agency and leave inspections to the states.
"This is just ridiculous that they're flying over watching us like we're committing flagrant crimes," he said. "Everybody is just really frustrated by the thought that the government is flying over, watching us and looking for things that are wrong."