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Transcript - Agri-Pulse Interview with Regional Administrator Karl Brooks on Misconceptions about CAFO Flyovers, Clean Water Act Responsibilities, and EPA's Inspection Program

Hello, I’m Ken Root. This is Agri-Pulse Open Mic, brought to you by the Corn Farmers Coalition.

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Ken Root: Our guest for Agri-Pulse Open Mic this week is Karl Brooks. Mr. Brooks is the EPA Administrator for Region 7, a four-state region encompassing Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and nine Tribal Nations. Brooks has lived in Lawrence, Kansas, since 1996. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas and joined the faculty in the year 2000. He has taught American, environmental, political and legal history, as well as environmental law and policy. Dr. Brooks is the author of “Before Earth Day: The Origins of American Environmental Law 1945-1970.” It was published in 2009. He has also published other books and written for a number of publications. Brooks practiced trial and appellate law in Idaho for a decade, a member of the Idaho State Bar since 1983. He has also admitted to practice before the Supreme Court and several federal appellate courts. Brooks was elected in 1986 to the first of three terms in the Idaho Senate. He also served the Idaho Conservation League as Executive Director and Legislative Liaison. He was appointed to his current job by President Obama in February 2010.

Let’s start with the hot item, that being the EPA flyovers of consolidated animal feeding operations in Iowa and Nebraska. Does EPA have authority to monitor these facilities from the air without notification of the owners?

Karl Brooks: EPA has the authority to do that. It’s granted by the Congress and some of the first statues that set EPA in motion. In our case here, the Clean Water Act is the pretty clear authority for that. U.S. Supreme Court’s taken a look at it so that the Agency authority is plain in the Clean Water Act. So there’s definitely legal authority to do that, and if you take a look at the challenge that we have working with state partners and the industry to keep water quality in Iowa the way it needs to be, we have the reason to do it too.

Ken Root: Nebraska seems to be the ones that have really pushed back on this. Can you tell me what happened and why this was elevated to such a high level?

Karl Brooks: Well, one thing that I cannot do is read minds, Ken, so the best I can do is let listeners know and viewers know how it came about. We actually started nearly two and a half years ago letting members of the Iowa and the Nebraska Congressional delegations know that Region 7 anticipated doing aerial evaluations of CAFOs. We did real careful communications with the state agencies, the DNR here in Iowa, the DEQ over in Nebraska and we thought that we had done a pretty extensive outreach so that we were letting people know what we planned on doing and why we were going to do it.

In Iowa, there’s certainly been a lot of questions about it, especially from members of the industry, both the cattle side and the hog side. We’ve had numerous meetings, especially up in north-central and northwestern Iowa. The political controversy really seemed to blow up though about five weeks ago when the Nebraska Congressional delegation sent a letter to Administrator Jackson asking about the program.

Ken Root: Did you meet with Iowa Senator Grassley to allay his fears on this?

Karl Brooks: Did have an excellent meeting with the Senator. He invited both me and one of my colleagues from our headquarters office to come in and visit with him there in D.C. on Capitol Hill. Senator had a whole series of good questions about the aerial work that EPA does. He wanted both to know how our work in Iowa operated and how that compared to what the Agency did around the country. So it was good to have a national colleague there. My headquarters colleague said the Agency for many years, dating well back before the start of this administration, has been using airplanes along with helicopters to take a look at a variety of different waterways and to look for pollution there. In fact, Region 7 here in this part of the country, we’re the eighth of 10 EPA regions to do this. So much of the country has been pretty familiar with this for many years now.

Ken Root: There are two other issues that seem to be coming forward. One is that when you fly over, you take pictures of people’s homes and the question of privacy. And also, whether you are or intend to use drone aircraft.

Karl Brooks: Let me borrow an aviation metaphor and I’m going to knock that drone out of the sky, Ken. EPA does not own drones, we do not lease drones, we have never flown drones. We don’t use drones in Region 7. What we use are Cessna 182s and the occasional Cessna 210. You can see them out here at West Des Moines or Clive or any place like that. It’s just a standard single-engine piloted airplane with the guy sitting in the sideway seat to look out there.

The images that we take though, of operations up and down these watersheds, focus on the feed yard area itself. There are images of people’s homes, cause sometimes they are kind of cheek by jowl. But the focus though is on the operation and its connection to the waters. We go, I’d say, the extra mile to make sure those images really focus on what we’re trying to do, which is to keep overflow out of the waters.

Ken Root: Karl, do you have any obligation if you see criminal activity to report it to another agency?

Karl Brooks: Like criminal activity, meaning something like somebody growing pot in the back forty? I have no idea what our obligation would be. We’ve never encountered that in Iowa or Nebraska, so I don’t know that we would have any obligation like that. I haven’t researched it, sounds like a good legal question. I don’t know the answer.

Ken Root: Let me move to another area: funding. Are you concerned about fiscal ‘13 funding that could be cut and keep you from doing your job as well as you’d like to?

Karl Brooks: EPA, like every other federal agency, like every family in America, faces tighter dollars in the future. One of the great things about Region 7, Ken, is we’ve got real strong relations with our state partner agencies like the DNR here, so that we can move work back and forth between state and federal to try to make sure that the job is done. My managers and I are pretty good about keeping pencils sharpened, trying to make sure that we have the basic resources to do the job. Much of that depends upon negotiations between the Congress and the President.

Ken Root: Let me ask you a political question. Do you feel there are people in Congress who don’t like your agency being as aggressive as it is, and are going to try to cut your funding to muzzle you?

Karl Brooks: Now Ken, you know in a political year, you can’t ask me political questions. What I will say is that the Agency always looks forward to opportunities with members of the Congress and the folks they represent to explain the work we do. I tell my colleagues at the Region, criticism is just an invitation to explain our work, show how it benefits people where they live and where they work. Don’t resent it, it comes with the territory. These are fair questions. And I think the explanations we give satisfy people around the Heartland that we’re an important part of the life they want to live, that we do our work fairly, that we do our work consistent with the law. We try to bring the best science to it, we make life a little better.

Ken Root: Moving to another area, upper Midwest states are moving toward voluntary water quality improvement programs, presumably to get ahead of regulatory agencies. The concept is to show that the farmers can improve their situation. How do you feel about these programs to improve water quality?

Karl Brooks: Ken, if you take a look at the basic water quality laws, whether they’re here in Iowa or the national Clean Water Act, all of them look to producers to be the main line of defense against water pollution and the main source of innovation to do our jobs so that we don’t pollute water. You know, the average pork producer today in Iowa, far better able to take care of water quality than his father or grandfather. I mean, in the last decade, the progress has been substantial in getting new technology into hog confinement operations to really control those discharges. Cattle industry is making the same progress.

One reason these photos are valuable, one reason that the Cattle Association has actually said they help the process of educating, is they show operators systems that work and they also remind operators of common things that need to be taken care of: lagoon free board, maintenances, storage areas. So it helps that process of education and we like to think that’s a process usually driven by the producer.

Ken Root: Regulatory certainty is another area where farmers and livestock producers would like to have a relationship with federal agencies. They’d like to have assurance that you won’t change the rules on them during the useful life of a livestock facility or a program they might enter into. How do you respond to that?

Karl Brooks: Understand the quest for certainty, we try to be as transparent as we can. I know our partners at the DNR work also with producer groups to try to make sure they understand the rules. You know, the system for keeping water quality at a level that Iowans want has been a pretty constant improvement. I’d like to think of it as a steady, uphill climb over the last 10 years especially. There have been changes in Iowa law, there have been some changes in federal law. Most of those changes, though, come as a result of conversation and discussion, sometimes pretty serious discussions between different parties and the regulated community and the environmental agencies. So we try to take a fair bit of input from the community before we make a rule and we really work hard here, especially in Region 7. Get out into the countryside, explain what we’re doing, and encourage people to ask questions.

Ken Root: This has to do with a recent ruling by the D.C. Appellate Court that has said the EPA can regulate greenhouse gases that have been caused by man’s activity. Where do you think that may go?

Karl Brooks: In the Region, here in the Heartland, we’ve been working with state agencies and the regulated community, especially energy producers, looking toward putting into effect what we call the Tailoring Rules so that only the very largest new sources of greenhouse gas, Ken, would have to take additional steps to control those pollutants. It’s a handful of facilities. It’s going to depend a lot on new construction patterns. We’re ready to go, we’re ready to work with the industry. I think most members of the industry have anticipated that some kind of ruling like this might be coming down, that it’ll be important to get it out into the field and make it work. But it only affects the very largest sources. We’re talking big coal-fired power plant, big petrochemical refinery, maybe a handful of really large factories. Most people won’t even be affected by the rule.

Ken Root: Karl Brooks, tell me what you’re holding there.

Karl Brooks: Well, you know it’s funny about the use of aviation and EPA here in the Heartland. We’ve been doing a lot of research to try to answer some of the questions that Senator Grassley and others have had, and we found back in the archives that in 1973 when Richard Nixon was the President and the administrator of EPA was appointed by a Republican, the Agency was using small aircraft in Iowa and Nebraska to fly watersheds to take a look at how CAFOs were affecting water quality. So this is a program that’s nothing radical or nothing new. People have used small airplanes to take a look at farm country ever since there were small airplanes. This new controversy is really just part of the continuing discussion about how we protect water and how we work with producers.

Ken Root: So, is that a log from 1973?

Karl Brooks: It actually is a report dating back to 1973 showing some of the results of flights in Nebraska and Iowa using the same kind of airplane that we used in 2010 and 2011.

Ken Root: Last thing: How do you feel the regulated community has responded to the EPA during your tenure? Do they respond positively, negatively or nervously?

Karl Brooks: I’m going to say constructively. I’ll choose a different word, Ken. I think that the conversations that we have all across the industry you know it’s a big complex industry, it’s the driver of the economy in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri those conversations are always constructive. It may start from a place where there’s questions and criticism and comments back and forth. We try to work very hard at EPA Region 7 to hear what the ag community has to say. We respond, I think, in a good faith way to suggestions for improvement. If we feel that we’ve got the legal duty to do something, we explain where that duty comes from. We respect the work that folks do every single day. It’s a hard job to produce food. It’s a vital national job. We understand, we’re part of that world that producers work in and we want to be a constructive part of that world.

Ken Root: Karl Brooks, thank you very much for being with us for Agri-Pulse Open Mic.

Karl Brooks: Always a pleasure, Ken. Thanks.

Ken Root: That’s Karl Brooks, Region 7 administrator for the EPA. Thank you for listening to Agri-Pulse Open Mic, brought to you by the Corn Farmers Coalition. I’m Ken Root.

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