LEXINGTON, Neb. — No one will mistake Steve Pollard for comedian Steve Martin.
Pollard, a livestock waste expert from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, faced a roomful of central Nebraska livestock producers intent on getting answers Monday night about the agency's controversial aerial inspection program.
He departed from his just-the-facts presentation and floated a joke about an illness containment system — aka sick bag — found on the small aircraft he uses to snap aerial photos of feedlots and livestock farms.
The straight-faced crowd didn't utter even a polite laugh.
Clearly the EPA-estimated audience of 120 ranchers, farmers and livestock feeders were in no mood for jokes about a practice they fear could increase their regulatory burden and business expenses.
“Big Brother sure as hell is watching me,” said Al Svajgr, owner of a 45,000-head cattle feedlot near Cozad.
And though EPA officials had traveled from the Region 7 office in Kansas City, Kan., to field questions about how the Clean Water Act applies to the Beef State, they acknowledged that their answers won't necessarily result in agreement from the people targeted by the inspections.
“At the end of the day, the EPA is responsible for national law, the American people and protecting the environment,” said Ken Brooks, administrator of the agency's regional office.
America's top environmental cop has been conducting the flyovers in Iowa since 2010 and in Nebraska since 2011. The agency plans a similar public information meeting Aug. 30 in Carroll County, Iowa.
Although livestock surveillance flights have been conducted in eight of the EPA's 10 regions, the flyover flap blew up in Nebraska in late May. That's when all five members of the state's congressional delegation, four Republicans and one Democrat, signed a letter with 25 pointed questions to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. The letter mirrored legal and privacy concerns held by livestock producers.
Despite EPA assurances that the flights are constitutional and cost-effective, Sen. Mike Johanns and Rep. Adrian Smith recently introduced unsuccessful amendments to ground the flights.
Representatives of the offices of Smith and Johanns attended Monday's meeting, as did State Sens. Ken Schilz of Ogallala and Mark Christensen of Imperial.
The area around Lexington has one of the highest concentrations of livestock feed yards in Nebraska.
Pollard displayed a map showing that central Nebraska also has a higher concentration of polluted rivers and streams than the rest of the state.
Several audience members asked why livestock producers, especially those who fall under regulations for concentrated animal feeding operations, get blamed for the pollution. They said other potential sources include chemical runoff from farm fields or oil and gas washed from parking lots by a heavy rain.
Pollard said the EPA doesn't blame livestock feeders for all pollution but said they are one of the groups that are regulated under provisions of the Clean Water Act.
One producer wanted to know if any of the nine flights in Nebraska or seven flights in Iowa resulted directly in a fine or enforcement action.
The aerial inspections are used to identify possible runoff problems, Pollard said. No fines or other enforcement actions are taken without a follow-up on-the-ground inspection, he said.
So far the flights and follow-up inspections have resulted in 39 enforcement actions in Iowa and 14 in Nebraska. But “more than 90 percent” of the operations inspected by air have been in compliance, Brooks said.
Another audience member wanted to know how much the flights cost taxpayers.
Brooks said one flight, which inspects multiple operations, costs the agency about $1,500. A single on-the-ground inspection costs about $10,000, he said.
Several producers said they have worked for years with inspectors from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality. Now, they said, the EPA has stepped in.
That can leave a livestock owner confused about whom they answer to, said Craig Uden, a feedlot owner from Dawson County.
Uden and others said EPA could improve its image in cattle country by sending a follow-up letter shortly after an inspection, letting a producer know whether he is in compliance.
“You put people on edge when you say ‘Do this, do this and do this,' and then we don't hear from you,” said Uden. “That puts a lot of fear out there.”
Another person asked whether the EPA will share the photos with environmental and animal rights groups distrusted by the agricultural industry, such as Greenpeace or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The agency has so far received two requests about the flyover program under the Freedom of Information Act, Brooks said. He said he didn't think they were from controversial groups.
While the agency must comply with the act, it could withhold photos in certain circumstances, such as an ongoing investigation, Brooks said.
The questions stretched about 45 minutes past the scheduled two hours.
And while laughter was in short supply, the meeting ended with polite applause.