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EPA under fire for flyovers in the Midwest

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The Environmental Protection Agency's aerial surveillance program isn't earning many fans in the Midwest.

Two Republican senators on Wednesday grilled the embattled agency's acting administrator, Bob Perciasepe, over the use of planes to search for environmental violations on ranches and farms in states such as Nebraska.

The issue first came to light last year and drew outrage from many members of Congress and the agriculture community, both concerned that the EPA's actions bordered on outright spying.

"To me and to the average American, this sounds kind of wacky. It kind of sounds like this is a federal agency that is completely and totally out of control," said Sen. Mike Johanns, Nebraska Republican. "People have this notion that the EPA is kind of a rogue group out there doing whatever they want to do."

Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, echoed those sentiments at Wednesday's Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior hearing, held to examine the EPA's $8.15 billion budget for fiscal 2014.

The hearing started with discussion of how the agency would make do with less money; its proposed budget was cut 2 percent from last year's level.

But it was the agency's flyover policy that led to fireworks.

Mr. Perciasepe told lawmakers that there are no flights taking place now, though they're likely to begin again as summer approaches. He also said that the agency is working on ways to better inform property owners when government planes are overhead.

"We are in the process of looking at what kind of notification systems and other kinds of information we would make available before we actually did any of these flights," he said. "The flights are quite simple. We don't do any enforcement work ... it is simply to help guide where we would send in field inspectors who would interact with the landowner."

As an example, Mr. Perciasepe told the subcommittee that the EPA could be looking at whether animal waste on a ranch or farm is polluting nearby water, resulting in violations of the Clean Water Act or other laws. He stressed that the information gleaned from a flyover would not be used as evidence to fine or otherwise punish someone, but would only spur an in-person visit from EPA officials.

"We're trying to be efficient. We're trying to only use our scarce resources in areas where there appears to be some problem," Mr. Perciasepe said.

Would-be EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is awaiting Senate confirmation. Since the resignation of Administrator Lisa P. Jackson in January, Mr. Perciasepe has been in charge of the agency.

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