The acting chief of the Environmental Protection Agency sparred with GOP senators Wednesday over the use of aerial surveillance to help guide enforcement of water pollution laws in farm country.
Bob Perciasepe came under fire from Sens. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who slammed the EPA's use of aerial surveillance of animal feedlots, calling it an intrusion into the lives of private landowners.
Perciasepe denied that the agency is engaged in surveillance and said the EPA is only trying to spot pollution.
Blunt and Perciasepe went back and forth at the Appropriations Committee hearing:
"You said it is not like you were spying on people. What term would you use?" Blunt asked.
"We were looking for where there may be animals and their waste in the water. So we are not looking at people at all," Perciasepe said.
"So you are spying on animals ..."
"Well, we are looking to see where we would send inspectors to see if there was a problem of water pollution," Perciasepe replied. "So I don't know that the animals are what we are spying on. We are looking at the conditions that could be creating water-quality violations."
Earlier in the hearing on the EPA's proposed fiscal 2014 budget, Johanns said he "can't imagine why you would do this" and said agency has failed to provide him with information he has sought.
"It kind of sounds like this is a federal agency that is completely and totally out of control," Johanns said during the hearing of the environment subcommittee. "It feels like there is a federal agency out there spying on American citizens."
Perciasepe, echoing prior EPA statements, sought to reassure the lawmakers that airplane surveillance is not used to bring enforcement actions but instead helps find priority areas for inspectors to visit.
"The idea here is not to spy on law-abiding citizens. ... This is a very efficient way for us to narrow where we go to, on the ground, talk to landowners about what they are doing. If they are doing everything right, there are going to be no consequences at all," Perciasepe said.
"I understand the perception issue that you are bringing up. It is helpful for me to hear the intensity of it," he told Johanns.
Wastewater and manure from big livestock feeding operations - called concentrated animal feeding operations - can be a significant source of water pollution and the EPA oversees the industry under the Clean Water Act.
"I have always preached that we should work with people. If you have got a bad actor, bring the hammer down, no-brainer," Johanns said. But he called the surveillance "kind of wacky."
Asked if the agency is currently conducting flights over feedlots, Perciasepe said no.
"We are in the process for the springtime here of looking at what kind of a notification system or other kinds of information" would be made available before flights of the small aircraft resume.
Blunt, for his part, urged the EPA to keep the program grounded.
"If I was going to sequester something at EPA, I think I would sequester the surveillance flying around at the top of the list," Blunt said.