You may have been surprised by the recent news that EPA Region 7 has conducted aerial surveillance of feed yards in the Midwest for the past two years. If you had not heard about these activities you should check out Todd Janzen’s Ag Law Blog article EPA Aerial Surveillance Under Fire. To tell you the truth, I was not surprised. During every EPA/Clean Water Act presentation I have attended, the speaker displayed an aerial photo of a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) they previously investigated. So it was not like the EPA was hiding its activities.
Surprising or not, the surveillance has recently been scrutinized by Nebraska’s 5 U.S. Congressional representatives, Senators Mike Johanns and Ben Nelson, and U.S. Representatives, Jeff Fortenberry, Adrian Smith and Lee Terry. On May 29th, the congressmen submitted this letter to Region 7 Administrator, Lisa Jackson, outlining several questions to be answered. The crux of the concern was potential privacy violations of feedlot operators and their families.
Per the Omaha World Herald, Representative Adrian Smith, R-Neb, was quoted “Nebraskans are rightfully skeptical of an agency which continues to unilaterally insert itself into the affairs of rural America.”
In March, the EPA held a meeting in Westpoint, Nebraska and tried to answer some of the cattlemen’s concerns. The EPA representative emphasized that aerial surveillance was a cost and time efficient way to view those CAFOs and AFOs suspected of causing problems. However, the Nebraska Cattlemen were not satisfied with the response. In an interview with Brownfield Ag News; Kristen Hassebrook, director of natural resources and environmental studies for Nebraska Cattlemen, pointed out that “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,” Hassebrook says. “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.”
Most farmers and ranchers I know don’t care for surprises; especially surprises from the government. The essential question is whether the EPA has the authority to conduct such flyovers and whether such flyovers violate your constitutional right to privacy, which I will try to address in Part II.