WASHINGTON — First there was the lore about farm dust and how the Environmental Protection Agency was ordering farmers to control it.
So what’s next? Unmanned spy planes conducting surveillance of Midwestern cattle farms to make sure their cows aren’t fouling the local water supply?
Some people thought so, and the story spread. And while it was just as false as the dustup over dust, on the Internet, fiction drives a Maserati.
For EPA critics, the notion of secret spy planes over the heartland was too good to be true. Truly.
“The idea of the EPA flying drones over Missouri farmland is deeply disturbing,” Republican Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri, who is running for the U.S. Senate, 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 have been no EPA “drones” flying over Missouri farmland. Or anywhere, for that matter.
The anti-pollution agency has, however, been sending 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, headquartered in Kansas City, Kan., which authorized the flights. But neither Missouri nor Kansas has been subject to similar aerial inspections, 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.”
Drones have gotten a lot of attention lately. They are the weapon of choice to eliminate the terrorists on President Barack Obama’s so-called “kill list.” Using them to patrol U.S. borders might be an option. Police chiefs in both Washington and neighboring Fairfax County, Va., want them to fight crime.
But several lawmakers on Capitol Hill worried about privacy want roadblocks on the use of drones in this country.
The EPA controversy began last month when the Nebraska congressional delegation wrote 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.”
She said Nebraska cattle ranchers are concerned about water quality and take pains to ensure the rules are followed. But 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 been using piloted flights around the country 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 Democratic 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.”
But “spy” drones quickly became the story, on Twitter, in the conservative media and elsewhere.
“EPA drones spy on farmers in Nebraska and Iowa” was the headline on a story in The Daily Caller, which has been described as a news Website with conservative leanings. “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 tension.
“You got to picture yourself, right, as one of these Midwestern farmers because what’s been in the news lately?” she said. “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.”
A Fox colleague interjected: “What are you supposed to think?”
Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” which has long enjoyed tweaking the network, didn’t debunk the drone story, either. But host Jon Stewart said in response to Kelly’s report: “You’re supposed to think they’re trying to catch people who are letting their cows (pollute) the water supply, because that’s what they’re doing. Who in their right mind would even make that connection?”
Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @GoldsteinDavidJ