Nobody is suggesting that the Environmental Protection Agency has been flying close enough to cattle feedlots in Nebraska lately to freak out the cattle.
But the absence of stampedes through feedlot fences hasn’t done much to mute criticism of the federal regulator’s decision to use airplanes to monitor the compliance of livestock farms with the Clean Water Act.
Members of the state’s congressional delegation still are waiting for answers to a long list of questions that all five of them signed on to last week and want addressed by the weekend.
Meanwhile, Kristen Hassebrook of the Nebraska Cattlemen made it clear Monday that its membership isn’t satisfied with the no-stampede standard.
“I think, as an industry, it makes us feel uncomfortable,” Hassebrook said of surveillance from the air.
And Mike Linder, the director of the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, isn’t sure what to make of the flyovers.
Linder does know that his state-level agency has held the delegated responsibility for administering the Clean Water Act in agricultural settings since the 1970s.
“I never heard that they think we’re not doing our job,” Linder said in an interview.
It’s not easy to establish exactly when flyovers became an issue in Nebraska. In a prepared statement issued from EPA’s Region 7 headquarters in Kansas City, a spokesman said the agency has been using them for “nearly a decade.”
But tension between the EPA and the state’s congressional delegation definitely flared again last week with a letter signed by Sen. Mike Johanns and others.
And Johanns was quick to follow up with a phone interview.
“Number one,” said Johanns, “EPA has a terrible reputation in the agricultural world. They’re regarded as aggressive, hard to deal with. So this only compounds that problem.
“The second thing -- why didn’t they tell somebody in the congressional delegation what their plans were?”
Journal Star efforts to ask those and other questions Monday produced a prepared statement and an offer to answer a written inquiry, rather than to make someone available for an interview.
That comment came a year to the day after the results of an interview with Region 7 Administrator Karl Brooks appeared under a headline that said, “Regional EPA boss promoting mutual respect.”
In its more recent statement, an unnamed EPA spokesman described “aerial over-flights” as “a cost-effective tool” that limits the need for on-site inspections and helps focus attention on “areas of the greatest concern.”
Among the biggest concerns are indications of feedlot runoff finding its way into rivers and streams.
Hassebrook disputed several EPA assertions, including the one about surveillance dating back decades.
“They’ve been doing flyovers of other industries for several years, I guess,” she said. “But when we talk flyovers of livestock, it was 2010 in Iowa and 2011 in Nebraska.”
The EPA was careful to note in its statement that flyovers are never the sole cause of enforcement actions.
On the other hand, Hassebrook and Linder said they’re not aware of flyovers being a factor in any recent enforcement cases.
Nor does Linder agree with those methods.
“It’s an approach that we at the state level don’t use,” he said. “We’ve been regulating livestock facilities in Nebraska since the 1970s, and we’ve visited most of the facilities in the state.
“We’ve developed, I think, a good working relationship with most facilities in the state. And our priority is compliance, not enforcement.”
Hassebrook said this disagreement is not about compliance.
“First of all, beef producers in Nebraska are committed to environmental compliance, committed to making sure that the water, soil and air of this state are protected in every way possible. We want to be in compliance.”
She acknowledged that “someone has to be the policeman. However, our response is that they already have all the access they need to accomplish those ends.”
That includes ground inspections “any day without notice, and we’re fully compliant with that.”
But an eye in the sky is different.
“Producers don’t know when they’ve been a target, and they never know what assumptions have been made from the air,” Hassebrook said.
Nor do those tactics suggest a good working relationship between people regulating and people being regulated.
“Is this really necessary?” Hassebrook said. “Is it effective? And we don’t believe it to be so.”
Johanns said he had a good relationship with his counterpart at EPA when he was George W. Bush’s agriculture secretary. That’s far from true in rating the relationship between Congress and the current EPA boss.
“I don’t feel Congress has any relationship, to speak of, with Lisa Jackson, unless we agree with her. Then things are fine.”