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David Mimlitch was on his lunch break in 2011, flipping through the 606 aerial photos he had just taken with a drone outside Dallas, when he noticed something strange: a creek stained scarlet with blood.
“That’s blood. Surely that can’t be right, surely that can’t be legal,” Mimlitch remembers thinking.
It was pig blood. Authorities quickly traced the the waste back to Columbia Meat Packing Company, then a Dallas-area slaughterhouse and meat packing facility. A grand jury indicted the company and two executives on 18 counts, which were later dropped, and Columbia shuttered its slaughterhouse. It eventually reopened as a stand-alone meat packing facility.
Mimlitch never set out to uncover the pig waste — he enjoys documenting the progress of large infrastructure projects in Dallas — and he doesn’t count himself as much of an activist. But he and others worry that a new Texas law could restrict the ability of hobbyists, journalists and activists from using drones to make observations like the one Mimlitch did.
House Bill 1643, which went into effect Sept. 1, makes it a crime to operate a drone over “concentrated animal feeding operations,” as well as telecommunication facilities and certain oil and gas facilities. It also bars Texas cities and towns from making their own rules regulating drone usage — a measure that has become controversial in its own right.
While the Columbia Packing facility may not classify as a "concentrated feeding operation," Mimlitch said the law strikes him as an attempt to protect companies from unfriendly eyes in the sky.
“Texas is trying to protect the businesses from prying eyes, from being vetted,” he said.
But proponents of the law see it differently. To them, drones pose a threat to agriculture across the state. As the technology develops, some fear the unmanned aircraft could be used to nefarious ends, like poisoning livestock or knocking out power lines.
State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, one of the authors of the legislation, said he was concerned about drones being used to infect cattle with foot-and-mouth disease.
“That disease could be spread through drones very easily and that is a massive fear for the economy of Texas, for the food supply in Texas, and really all of the United States,” he said.
While he couldn’t point to an example of a specific threat or complaint about spreading diseases through drones, he said “that was the natural next step if you look at security risks that would be anticipated.”
“There are people who disagree with eating domesticated animals and they will stop at nothing to make sure nobody else can do that,” Springer said.
Opponents of the bill are skeptical of the threat that drones pose to the facilities and argue that many of the activities it seeks to prevent — like poisoning the national food supply — are already considered crimes in Texas.
“It would be an act of terrorism,” Judith McGeary, the executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, said. “There’d be multiple felonies that could be brought, the idea that a class B misdemeanor for flying the drone is how you’re going to stop that kind of action is absurd.”
McGeary said she fears that the law targets academics and other researchers who want to shed light on practices in the agriculture industry. Still, though, she said she doesn’t know of any academics using the technology to conduct that kind of research.
Josh Cohn, the political director of EFF-Austin, a technology advocacy group, said that the new law prevents people from taking advantage of drones in the future.
“Instead of adapting to these new technologies like drones, Texas is restricting the people we want using them,” he said. “We want to promote free speech and research. Drone enthusiasts are going to be penalized by this bill.”
But Josh Winegarner, the director of government relations for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, said that ranchers often cooperate with outside researchers.
“We cooperate with universities, we’ve done a lot of stuff with journalists,” he said, adding that hiding the facilities from public view was “not an intent behind the bill.”
Concerns about the bill extend beyond the bovine. The Texas Association of School Boards, the Texas Municipal League, and the City of Plano all sent letters to Gov. Greg Abbott asking him to veto the legislation. They each argued that the law’s new rules limiting local control over drone usage would have detrimental effects.
“The bill’s requirements would hinder school districts’ ability to quickly respond to safety and privacy risks to our students and communities,” Jim de Garavilla, chairman of the Texas Association of School Boards' legislative committee, wrote to Abbott. “Schools cannot rely on existing federal and state laws to address all of the safety and privacy risks.”
Springer said that provision was intended to help companies experimenting with drone delivery. Cities and towns will still be able to regulate drone usage in some scenarios, like special events.
“We’re trying to find that fine balance between public safety and still allowing commercial development of the technology,” he said. “Those groups — whether it’s Google or Amazon or anybody else that is looking at drone delivery systems — were worried about a patchwork quilt of regulations that would have prevented them from going forward with that technology.”
Disclosure: The Texas Association of School Boards, Texas Municipal League, and the City of Plano have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.