GOP looks to block EPA from using drones to enforce clean-water rules

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and 11 other House members introduced a bill Tuesday that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from conducting aerial drone surveillance of farms to enforce the Clean Water Act, or using any other overhead surveillance.

"Unemployment has been at or above 8 percent for 30 consecutive months. Is conducting flyovers of family farms across the country really the best use of taxpayer money?" Capito asked on Tuesday.

"It's getting to the point that I'll have to file for a Clean Water Act permit if I want to turn the hose on in my backyard," she said. "The EPA will take any opportunity to make it harder for farmers, energy operators or any business that deals with the EPA to operate."

Aerial surveillance is one of the tools that the EPA has used to enforce the Clean Water Act since its passage during the Nixon administration. 

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Capito's bill, the Farmer's Privacy Act, would only allow aerial surveillance if the EPA gets written consent, gives public notice, and if there is a reasonable suspicion that the Clean Water Act is being violated.

Her bill would prevent any kind of aerial surveillance, including from drones or manned aircraft, or remote controlled aircraft. It would also prohibit the use of aerial or satellite images, even if those images are publicly available.

While the bill does not focus exclusively on drones, it is the latest attempt by Republicans in particular to limit the use of drones within the United States by the government, and prevent their use even when they are not currently used. Last week, House and Senate Republicans proposed legislation that would require the government to obtain a warrant before using drones for surveillance in U.S. territory.

The drone-warrant bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which has given no sign that it would consider it. Capito's bill was referred to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has likewise not indicated whether it would move her bill.

Capito said her bill was driven in part by a local incident in which the EPA admitted to aerial surveillance of a farm in her state. Capito wrote to the EPA for clarification about its aerial surveillance program, and in March, the EPA confirmed that: "aerial over-flights are only one of many tools that are used as part of the compliance assurance process to identify discharging sources that may impact water quality."

EPA also said it tries to coordinate its enforcement efforts with state officials responsible for verifying compliance with state law.

Other Republican co-sponsors of the bill are Reps. Todd Akin (Mo.), Bob Goodlatte (Va.), Morgan Griffith (Va.), Andy Harris (Md.), Bill Johnson (Ohio), Kristi Noem (S.D.), Dennis Ross (Fla.), Adrian Smith (Neb.), Lee Terry (Neb.) and Glenn Thompson (Pa.).

One Democrat is also on the bill, Rep. Tim Holden (Pa.).

— This story was updated at 12:22 p.m.