By Kevin Murphy
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Cattle farmers complained on Wednesday that a federal agency is "spying" on their operations by flying airplanes over Midwest cattle feedlots to see if they are complying with clean water regulations.
The livestock producers and some members of Congress from rural areas want to know why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is using airplanes to monitor whether feedlots are obeying the Clean Water Act.
"The federal government has literally resorted to spying on producers," said Kristen Hassebrook, natural resources and environmental affairs director for the Nebraska Cattlemen.
Her association advised two U.S. senators and three members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Nebraska in drafting a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson on the matter. They said the aerial surveillance raises privacy concerns and they question the statutory authority for the flights.
Hassebrook said inspections and photographs from high in the air may result in faulty assumptions about whether a feedlot is operating properly, which could expose the owner to unfounded allegations.
Feedlots are where cattle are kept in confinement and fed intensively until they are ready for slaughter. Because there are usually large numbers in a limited space, the accumulation of manure needs to be disposed. The waste can pollute ground water.
The EPA defended the flights on Wednesday as part of its effort to enforce the law, which sets standards for how cattle feedlots are to dispose of manure to avoid pollution.
"EPA uses over-flights, state records and other publicly available sources of information to identify discharges of pollution," said a statement issued by the EPA's Kansas City regional office. "In no case has EPA taken an enforcement action solely on the basis of these over-flights."
EPA has for 10 years used flyovers to verify compliance with environmental laws on watersheds as a "cost-effective" tool to minimize inspection costs, according to the statement.
The EPA did not say how long the feedlots have been under aerial inspection, but Hassebrook said her group believes it began in 2010.
The EPA held a meeting in West Point, Nebraska, in March to discuss the flyovers in Nebraska and Iowa, Hassebrook said. About 125 cattle producers attended the meeting, she said.
The letter from the Nebraska members of Congress raises questions about the frequency of the flights, who gets inspected, what becomes of pictures or video and whether the EPA is also looking for violations unrelated to the Clean Water Act.
"Nebraskans are rightly skeptical of an agency which continues to unilaterally insert itself into the affairs of rural America," congressman Adrian Smith of Nebraska said in a statement on Tuesday.
Farmers have been at loggerheads for years with the EPA over everything from water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, to dust in the air from crops and fields. The nation's largest farm organization, the American Farm Bureau Federation, last year sued the EPA, and several states have complained about what they call excessive regulation.
The EPA defends the regulation as necessary to protect the environment.
(Editing by Greg McCune and Eric Beech)