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False reports of EPA drones over Midwest farms alarm public

Reports of unmanned aircraft sent by EPA spread rapidly, but the agency says they’re not true.

Updated: 2012-06-20T22:14:47Z

By DAVID GOLDSTEIN

The Star’s Washington correspondent

— UNMANNED SPY PLANES CONDUCTING SURVEILLANCE OF MIDWESTERN CATTLE FARMS!

At least that’s what some people thought the Environmental Protection Agency was up to and the story spread quickly. Twitter and some conservative media outlets picked it up.

And with each repetition, it appeared to gain more credibility.

The alleged EPA drones supposedly were dispatched from the Kansas City, Kan., site of the agency’s regional headquarters, to check on whether cow manure was fouling water supplies.

For EPA critics, the notion of spy planes hovering over the heartland was just too good to pass up.

“The idea of the EPA flying drones over Missouri farmland is deeply disturbing,” U.S. Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri wrote in a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. “The EPA assumes that Missouri farmers are the bad guys and are overreaching yet again … trying to find any possible reason to harass farmers.”

Except that there are no EPA “drones” flying over Missouri farmland, according to EPA officials. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

The anti-pollution agency has been sending up small piloted planes over cattle operations in Nebraska, as well as Iowa, to check for polluted runoff and potential violations of the Clean Water Act. Both states, along with Missouri and Kansas, are part of the same EPA Region VII.

But neither Missouri nor Kansas has been subject to similar inspection flights, according to the agency.

“When a story comes out about how government is misbehaving, then people who are suspicious of the government are much more likely to pick up on that information,” said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “In the online world … this kind of phenomenon can happen literally at the speed of light.”

The controversy began last month when the Nebraska congressional delegation wrote the EPA’s Jackson raising privacy questions about “a series of aerial surveillance flights” over livestock farms.

“Flying over private property is very different than flying over a chemical manufacturing plant, or even an open field,” said Kristen Hassebrook, director of natural resources and environmental affairs for the Nebraska Cattlemen, an industry trade group. “You’re flying over a facility that has a private home. The practice itself is what’s concerning to producers.”

However, neither the lawmakers in their letter nor the cattlemen ever used the word “drone.”

“I don’t know where the word ‘drone’ first came up,” Hassebrook said. “I spent two days just emailing and making phone calls telling people that there are no drones.”

An EPA spokesman could not be reached to publicly comment, but the agency has made no secret of using piloted flights for several years to inspect for Clean Water Act problems.

“For the record, the only aircraft the EPA has used to verify compliance with environmental laws are manned aircraft,” according to a letter from Karl Brooks, EPA regional administrator in Kansas City, Kan., to Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

Brooks said the flights were an “important, cost-effective tool to help protect local communities and water quality from harm that can result from discharges from these facilities.”

Drones, however, quickly became the story.

“EPA drones spy on farmers in Nebraska and Iowa” was the headline in The Daily Caller, a conservative website. “Send in The Drones: Obama Spies on America” topped a piece on the website Investors.com

On Fox News — which subsequently corrected its report about EPA drones — anchorwoman Megyn Kelly seemed to bump up the paranoia-meter.

“You got to picture yourself, right, as one of these Midwestern farmers because what’s been in the news lately?” she reported. “That President Obama has killed more terrorists with drones than any other president. That President Obama has a so-called ‘kill list’ and that on that ‘kill list’ sometimes civilian casualties go as well …You’ve got to get a little squeamish when you see a drone going overhead.”

Predictions that multitudes of unmanned aircraft could be flying over the United States within a decade are raising the specter of a “surveillance society” in which no home or backyard would be off limits to prying eyes overhead.

Law enforcement, oil companies, farmers, real estate agents and many others have seen the technology that was pioneered on battlefields, and they are eager to put it to use.

Indeed, the government is in the early stages of devising rules for the unmanned aircraft. So far, civilian use of drones is fairly limited. The Federal Aviation Administration had issued fewer than 300 permits for drones by the end of last year.

Public worries about drones began mostly on the political margins, but there are signs that they’re going mainstream.

Jeff Landry, a freshman Republican congressman from Louisiana’s coastal bayou country, said constituents have stopped him while shopping at Walmart to talk about their concerns.

“There is a distrust amongst the people who have come and discussed this issue with me about our government,” Landry said. “It’s raising an alarm with the American public.”

Fear that some drones may be armed, for example, has been fueled in part by a county sheriff’s office in Texas that used a homeland security grant to buy a $300,000, 50-pound ShadowHawk helicopter drone for its SWAT team. The drone can be equipped with a 40mm grenade launcher and a 12-gauge shotgun.

Randy McDaniel, chief deputy with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, told The Associated Press earlier this year his office had no plans to arm the drone, but he left open the possibility the agency might decide to adapt the drone to fire tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.

Earlier this year Congress, under pressure from the Defense Department and drone manufacturers, ordered the FAA to give drones greater access to civilian airspace by 2015. Besides the military, the mandate applies to drones operated by private companies or individuals and civilian government agencies, including federal, state and local law enforcement.

The military, which is bringing home unmanned aircraft from Afghanistan, wants room to test and use them.

But the potential civilian market for drones may far eclipse military demand. Power companies want them to monitor transmission lines. Journalists are exploring drones’ newsgathering potential. Police departments want them to chase crooks, conduct search and rescue missions and catch speeders.

However, concern is spreading. U.S. Rep. Austin Scott said he first learned of the issue when someone shouted out a question about drones at a meeting in his Georgia district two months ago.

When Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell suggested during an interview on Washington radio station WTOP last month that drones be used by police since they’ve done such a good job on foreign battlefields, the political backlash was swift.

NetRightDaily complained: “This seems like something a fascist would do. ... McDonnell isn’t pro-Big Government, he is pro-HUGE Government.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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