LEXINGTON, Neb. - An overflight program that began 2 1/2 years ago in the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Region 7 targeting livestock operations along impaired waterways has proved controversial. Not only is the livestock industry upset about possible privacy infringement, but flyovers of central Nebraska May 15-16 prompted Nebraska's congressional delegation to step in seeking answers.
In an effort to have a conversation about the Clean Water Act (CWA) and what's going on, representatives from EPA, including EPA Region 7 Administrator Karl Brooks, conducted an outreach meeting July 1 in Lexington. About 125 livestock producers and representatives from livestock and farm organizations attended the meeting that reviewed the agency's Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO)/Compliance Activities for 2012.
"We know we needed to get some facts out about the questions of how we use airplanes to carry out our CWA activities. We started 2 1/2 years ago, first in Iowa, then in Nebraska," said Brooks. "Eight of the 10 EPA regions have used airplanes to do flyovers. Region 7 is the last," he added.
Stephen Pollard, EPA Region 7 CAFO enforcement coordinator, noted he is the "man in the air," the one who takes the pictures during flyovers. "These are not random inspections," he said. "We use four criteria to determine where our flyovers will occur. First we look at the number of facilities, where precipitation is occurring, the density of Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs) in a watershed and look at impaired waterways on the 303 D list."
Pollard showed the audience a map of flight paths EPA has already conducted going up and down stream segments in Nebraska. The EPA uses primarily a Cessna 172, and occasionally a Cessna 210 for the flights, contracting for both plane and pilot through the U.S. Department of Interior.
"These flights are used as a screening tool, with the focus on facilities that may need an inspection for runoff violations," he said.
When asked why EPA was using a plane instead of making on-sight inspections, Pollard said, "In a lot of instances, those (wastewater) structures are off the road and we can't see them without a full blown inspection."
When questioned about the cost effectiveness of the flights, Brooks noted, "The ballpark figure for each 4-5 hour flight is $1,500. By contrast one full-blown on-site inspections costs around $10,000 - which includes staff time from start of the inspection to close of compliance and all the testing required."
After each flight Pollard said they return to the office and analyze the photographs. "Up to 90 percent of the operations viewed from the air (in Iowa and Nebraska) are doing it right," said Pollard.
For those operations with possible violations, an on-site inspection will be conducted. While Trevor Urban, EPA Region 7 CAFO inspector, said their standard operating policy is to give up to 24 hours notice to an operation that will be inspected in order to follow any biohazard restrictions, but the policy also allows no notice at all.
That vague policy is frustrating for livestock producers, noted those in attendance. Since inspections are thorough and can take up to a full day, when inspectors show up unannounced, sometimes the person in charge is not there. In addition, it upsets a daily schedule when they must take time to assemble required documents for inspectors and accompany them around the operation to answer questions.
In addition to observing traditional large CAFOs, EPA is also looking at medium CAFOS, winter-feeding areas and manure-litter stockpiles, said Pollard.
Urban outlined the steps involved in an inspection, noting as much as possible they involve the state agency involved with environmental protection, which in Nebraska is the Department of Environmental Quality.
"We realize it's tough to be in compliance when you are getting two sets of marching orders," said Urban.
But that is exactly what is happening, noted many of those during the question and answer period following EPAs presentation. Noted Jordan Dux, national affairs coordinator for Nebraska Farm Bureau, "Our biggest concern is duplication of efforts. Obviously you have oversight, but producers can hear one thing from DEQ and another from you."
Then there is the frustration of knowing whether you have come back into compliance when a violation or problem has been identified. Producers at the meeting noted most state and federal agencies issue some type of followup letter, but EPA never does.