Senate Farm Bill Debate Gets Absurd Over Pollution Investigations by Airplane

The U.S. Senate has been working to consider and adopt the Farm Bill, a colossal piece of legislation that sets national agriculture policy.  After a major push by several Senators to take advantage of their colleagues' strong desire to pass a bill and sneak attacks on clean water into the bill, there is now apparently an agreement to move forward on the bill, with a limited number of votes on amendments. 

One particularly silly proposal that will be considered deserves a quick post.  Senator Johanns (R-NE) wants to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from observing industrial livestock facilities from aircraft, a practice aimed at identifying violations of the Clean Water Act.  These operations can run afoul of the law if they pollute nearby waters without a pollution permit or if they spread waste in a way that isn’t agriculturally sound.

There are many reasons why the Senate should reject Senator Johanns’s attack on law enforcement:

  • These enforcement efforts are aimed at industrial-scale livestock facilities, not small farms, because the Clean Water Act focuses on “concentrated animal feeding operations,” and because the law excludes various routine agricultural discharges from the permitting requirements of the Act.  Stopping EPA from enforcing the law will primarily help enormous facilities that can generate as much waste – which is typically untreated – as a city; as the Government Accountability Office noted, “a median-sized beef cattle operation with 3,423 head of beef cattle can produce more than 40,000 tons of manure annually, which is more than the almost 38,900 tons of sanitary waste per year generated by the nearly 57,000 residents of Galveston, Texas.”
  • Aerial law enforcement is used to catch speeding cars.  Isn’t the Clean Water Act as important as a highway speed limit?  (Fun aside: I once got cited in an aircraft surveillance operation in Maine for allegedly speeding, but I fought it and won.  Tip for future traffic court defendants: bring your absurdly trustworthy father to court to testify on your behalf.)
  • These kinds of enforcement efforts are necessary because polluter-led attacks have weakened the Clean Water Act’s pollution prevention approach, which has largely turned the law into a catch-me-if-you-can regime with respect to these operations.  Also the industrial livestock lobby has fought even modest oversight of these operations’ pollution management (or lack thereof) that would identify lawbreakers.
  • Aerial photography of livestock facilities – indeed, of most places you can imagine – is openly available on the internet.  For example, when EPA proposed a (painfully incomplete) survey of industrial livestock operations late last year, the industry raised unspecified “security” concerns and we pointed out that this was unjustified.  As we noted, it’s downright easy to find these kinds of facilities; check out this image I obtained by focusing on one area in Iowa, essentially at random, and scanning for long white buildings with what appeared to be waste lagoons. 
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture takes aerial photos of farms all the time, and has since the 1940s 1930s.

Given the wide availability of photos, I think that the important difference between the available information and what EPA is looking for is that the existing stuff is fairly static – it only reflects what was happening on the day that the picture happened to have been taken – whereas the more targeted flyovers can look to see if there are activities or conditions that are leading to water pollution (e.g., if manure is being over-applied or put on frozen or snow-covered fields, or if facilities’ lagoons are overflowing).  Thus, stopping EPA will really just stop the collection of relevant pollution information and shield polluters.

This is the latest in a series of overblown claims suggesting that EPA is out to get agriculture.  Whether it’s that EPA is using “drones” to spy on farms (it’s not), or regulate every drop of water on farms across America (it’s not), or control “farm dust” (it’s not), these claims seem primarily designed to scare farmers. 

However, if the Senate can resist this scaremongering, focus on the importance of clean water, and follow the facts and common sense in making farm policy, this amendment has no chance.  Stay tuned.