EPA’s Silence on Drone Policy Launches Industry Debate

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By Sylvia Carignan

Drones’ increasing use in environmental assessments hasn’t prompted the EPA to begin regulating the unmanned vehicles. Companies that already embrace the technology disagree about whether that’s good or bad.

The Environmental Protection Agency does not collect data via drone, according to an agency spokesperson, and is still deciding whether to put in place a national drone policy. As of the end of March, 36 states have enacted laws addressing various drone issues.

But whether the EPA’s view affects the environmental assessment industry is up for debate. Environmental firms have been adopting maturing drone technology and remote sensors to detect and characterize contaminant plumes with more precision, lowering costs and reducing safety risks.

The EPA is slowing technological advancements with what amounts to an unwritten policy that shuts out drone-collected data, said James Oliver, manager of unmanned aerial systems technologies at New Jersey-based engineering firm Maser Consulting.

“They are telling people that they will not accept any data collected from an EPA site from a [drone] until they have developed their policy,” he said.

As a result, firms working on EPA sites don’t benefit from the option of using drones, Oliver said. The technology can reduce the number of workers exposed to unsafe conditions and reduce the costs of data collection.

“It’s kind of holding back the whole environmental industry related to compliance and information required under EPA permits, because you’re not able to use those sensors or technologies,” Oliver said.

Site-By-Site Assessments

According to an EPA spokesperson, the agency assesses the validity of drone-collected data on a site-by-site basis.

The agency’s Office of Land and Emergency Management has directed agency staff not to use drones to screen contaminated or potentially contaminated sites, according to an EPA spokesperson. The office also told staff not to direct other agencies or parties to collect data via drones.John Coviello is assistant marketing manager at New Jersey environmental consulting and remediation firm EWMA, which uses drone-mounted cameras to screen sites. He told Bloomberg BNA drones are beneficial for firms such as his.

“Essentially, the EPA won’t accept drone data,” he said in an email, “but that data can be useful in identifying areas that require further ground investigation.”

‘Limited’ State Legislation

President Barack Obama asked federal agencies in 2015 to develop their own drone policies. Agencies were given one year to do so.

The EPA did not develop a policy within the deadline, but some states have enacted legislation or adopted the technology for their own use.

Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality started using drones at hardrock mining sites for safety reasons, said Craig Jones, a senior Montana Environmental Policy Act Permit and Montana Major Facility Siting Act compliance coordinator for the state agency.

“It allows us to have not inspectors out in dangerous areas,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

The state agency bought its own drones, according to Kristi Ponozzo, the agency’s public policy director, and has since expanded their use to survey environmental cleanup sites as well as mines and pipelines.

Amanda Essex, transportation policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said there has been “limited” state legislative action addressing the use of drones for environmental monitoring and assessment.

In 2015, Florida enacted legislation that allowed the use of drone-mounted cameras for environmental monitoring, according to an analysis by the conference. That same year, Louisiana began to allow drone use in agricultural commercial operations as long as the operator obtained a license, registered the drone with the state and completed an educational course.

Navigating Drone Laws

Drone operators have other restrictions to worry about apart from potential EPA regulation, said Sarah Nilsson, an Arizona attorney who handles cases related to aviation law and drones. Those restrictions include a long wait for waiver applications at the Federal Aviation Administration and lack of guidance about flying drones over crowds.

She told Bloomberg BNA commercial drone users would likely prefer no policy to a restrictive policy. She cited the National Parks Service’s policy, which prevents the public from launching, landing or operating drones within national parks.

“That just gets in the way,” she said of the policy.

The FAA requires operators to keep drones within their sight, a restriction that affects environmental firms. Oliver called it “the greatest hurdle” in planning drone routes and makes it difficult to survey larger areas.

The FAA has launched a committee to get recommendations on the line-of-sight restriction and flights over crowds, the agency’s administrator, Michael Huerta, said at a symposium last month.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sylvia Carignan in Washington at scarignan@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at pconnolly@bna.com

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