EPA Continues to Defend Use of Flyovers


by Todd Neeley, DTN Staff Reporter

LEXINGTON, Neb. (DTN) — EPA Region 7 Administrator Karl Brooks remembers the conversation like it was yesterday.

He called Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality Director Mike Linder prior to conducting controversial EPA flyovers of concentrated animal feeding operations in the state about two years ago.

“I talked to Linder prior to the flights in Nebraska and he said it would not be something they would do if it was up to them,” Brooks said to an audience of 60 to 70 producers, state extension officials and others during a public meeting Monday night in Lexington, Neb.

“He said he understood why we were doing it and he suggested there might be a little controversy. He was very direct. He understood we had the authority, but said ‘I wouldn’t do it.’”

The flyovers done May 15 and May 16 in areas of central Nebraska caught the eye of the state’s Congressional delegation, leading to the near-passage of an amendment to the farm bill in the Senate to ban the practice — a vote that fell four votes short.

NDEQ officials were not in attendance at the meeting although Brooks said they were invited.

In June the Nebraska Congressional delegation of Sens. Mike Johanns, R, and Ben Nelson, D, along with Republican Reps. Jeff Fortenberry, Adrian Smith and Lee Terry, sent a letter to EPA asking a number of questions about the flights.

Farm groups and others have expressed concern about what is perceived to be an expansion of EPA authority onto U.S. farms. In the past two years Republican-led committees in the U.S. House of Representatives have held numerous hearings, calling on EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and other agency officials to testify on a variety of issues.

As a result of the flyover controversy, Brooks said, Region 7 has stepped up its efforts to show farmers how and why the agency started the practice to search CAFOs for potential Clean Water Act violations.

Erroneous reports by some media outlets in recent weeks suggested EPA was using drones as part of the flyover program that started in Nebraska and Iowa in 2010 — the type of information Brooks said makes it hard for EPA to do its job.

“The work we do to enforce the Clean Water Act requires us to work with you every day,” he said. “It is important for us to make sure we have the facts and get the facts to you. We know we needed to get the facts out. I know you’re dealing with misstatements and exaggerations.

“When we first got the letter from the Congressional delegation, it was reported that EPA had a fleet of drones. EPA does not fly drones. We don’t own drones. I want to make sure as much as possible that you get the facts. It’s not always what you hear in the media.”

In a question-and-answer sheet provided to the media, EPA said it intended to conduct two more flights each in Nebraska and Iowa yet in 2012. However, Brooks said EPA does not intend to conduct additional flights in Nebraska this year.


Stephen Pollard, Region 7 CAFO compliance coordinator, said when EPA makes a decision about where to conduct flyovers the agency looks at impaired watersheds, the number of CAFOs present in those watersheds and for evidence of possible runoff from feedlots.

The Nebraska flights were conducted in areas of south-central and northeast Nebraska, where there are a high number of CAFOs and impaired waters.

Brooks said EPA’s focus on CAFOs does not mean they are the only source of nutrient runoff that causes water impairment.

“These inspections are a small slice of all inspections done in Nebraska,” he said. “Not all of these impaired waters are caused by permitted CAFOs — we know that.”

Pollard said he uses a contracted Cessna 172 and pilot through a U.S. Department of the Interior program. He carries along an off-the-shelf Nikon camera with zoom capabilities, flying at 1,500 to 2,000 feet. Though the Nebraska delegation expressed concern that the flights were scaring cattle, Pollard said he noticed little reaction from animals that were more likely to respond to feed trucks.

Once photos are taken, he said, he looks for evidence of the likelihood of discharge and makes a list of potential discharges to give to state officials for potential ground inspections.

“If there is a good candidate for inspection, we will select them for an on-ground inspection,” Pollard said. “The flight is more of a screening to focus on the ones we think stand the biggest chance to reduce runoff.”


Some of the most common problems seen in flight include overflowing sewage basins and mortality management in swine operations. Based on the May flyovers, he said about 90{6b02cb02835b82b7f756ddf6717aaab7139b350de274ea97f5b53eb230607107} of the Nebraska CAFOs observed showed no indication of potential violations.

The most common conveyances for potential illegal discharges are road ditches and drainage tiles, Pollard said. Many feedlot operators often avoid the need for CAFO permits by eliminating conveyances. Some producers have expanded the size of their operations to make it “more economical” to obtain permits, he said.

Other issues often found by EPA inspectors include runoff from feed stockpiles for winter feeding, sludge accumulation, record-keeping problems for nutrient management plans and manure over-application.

An audience member asked why EPA doesn’t use USDA satellite images instead of photos shot on flyovers.

Pollard said there are “restrictions” as to what the agency can use from USDA.

“We use it, but one of the benefits of these flights is that it provides a real-time evaluation that with USDA imagery we don’t see until maybe a year afterwards,” he said. “Flights give us more detail.”

Trevor Urban, senior CAFO inspector for EPA, said inspectors have a goal of seeing a whole operation.

“When we’re out there we do our best to get in and get out,” he said. “This is pretty consistent when we go out. Sometimes we won’t call ahead of time if something has been discharged. We may just show up.”

Urban said EPA inspectors can give a 24- to 48-hour notice before inspections. A notice is often used to make sure EPA inspectors account for any bio-security measures they need to follow when they inspect a site, and to make sure a CAFO representative is available to answer questions.

“When we do inspections it is not a gotcha thing,” he said. “We’re going to discuss it with you. We’ll tell you right then and there and move on.

“We know people are trying to do their best, and we’re going to try and help you get to the next level of compliance. We’re a finder of fact; we don’t make the final decisions.”


Producers and others questioned the need for both NDEQ and EPA involvement in compliance, the costs of the flyovers compared to on-ground inspections, as well as why EPA doesn’t notify producers by mail if they are found to be in compliance. Brooks said each flight costs about $1,500 compared to $10,000 for each on-site inspection.

Although the flights have caused concern, Brooks said EPA does not issue notices of violation without first conducting ground inspections.

In some cases, several months can pass between inspections and when farmers receive word of how to fix certain issues. In some cases the next contact from EPA following an inspection comes in the form of a compliance letter, informing the CAFO of potential violations. Some audience members suggested that EPA should work more closely with NDEQ to provide more information about compliance, especially in cases where problems are not found.

“There are a lot of aspects about the federal/state relationship that looks a bit clumsy,” Brooks said.

“We have constant communication about how we do inspection work. A big part of the job I have is constant communication.”


© Copyright 2012 DTN/The Progressive Farmer, A Telvent Brand. All rights reserved.

Posted with DTN Permission by Haylie Shipp


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