After years of complaints, Florida improves pollution monitoring near burning sugar cane fields – ProPublica

For the first time in nearly a decade, regulators in Florida have improved their air monitoring system in the state’s sugar region, where farmers burn their crops to harvest more than half of the cane sugar. from the country.

The move follows an investigation by the Palm Beach Post and ProPublica that found deficiencies in how authorities control air pollution in the heart of Florida, including their use of an air monitor that was not suited to the application of the Clean Air Act, the historic law designed to protect the public from harmful pollutants.

For years, residents have complained that burning cane sends smoke and ash into their communities and harms their health. But, as news agencies reported in July, state health and environment officials continued to monitor Belle Glade, despite the issues reported in 2013.

Federal law allowed it, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency said the state could continue to use the equipment to track the Air Quality Index, a tool for public information that indicates whether the air is good, unhealthy or dangerous. But the decision to stick with the old monitor meant officials couldn’t use it to measure violations of the stricter Clean Air Act or hold polluters accountable for potential violations on 400,000 acres of fields. sugar cane.

For about nine months since The Post and ProPublica began asking questions about the monitor, officials have said they will replace it “in the future,” “later in 2021” and, more recently, “later. in the near future “. Then, last month, the Palm Beach County Department of Health upgraded the Belle Glade monitor with one that’s fit to enforce federal pollution standards. Alexandra Kuchta, spokeswoman for the State Department of Environmental Protection, said the upgrade was delayed because officials had to “make physical modifications to the shelter so that the new monitoring equipment adapts. “

The department, she said, is also in discussions with the EPA about expanding air monitoring in the state. Next year, the EPA plans to award $ 20 million in competitive grants to local, state and tribal governments to help better monitor “pollutants of most concern in communities with environmental and health disparities resulting from pollution and the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The practice of cane burning disproportionately affects the glades, a patchwork of predominantly black and Hispanic communities amid the cane fields. The smoke rarely reaches the wealthiest and whitest communities in the east, as it is forbidden to burn when the wind is blowing in that direction. Hospitalization data also suggests health disparities. News organizations found that hospital and emergency room visits for respiratory problems in Belle Glade patients increased during cane burn season, although our analysis could not determine the ultimate cause. . The seasonal difference at Belle Glade was larger than the changes in other similar populations where burn was not present.

Particulate matter, an inhalable mixture of pollutants and debris linked to heart and lung disease, is the primary concern of public health experts. According to the EPA, Palm Beach County emits more particulates from farm fires than any other county in the country.

Democrats in the state legislature do not rely on state regulators, who for years have said the air is safe to breathe. This month, Representative Anna Eskamani and Senator Gary Farmer introduced legislation to hold residents accountable by overturning a new law that protects farmers from lawsuits for air pollution. Under changes passed by the legislature in April, the state’s law on the right to agriculture now includes “particulate matter emissions” in a list of protected agricultural activities. The term is interchangeable with particulate matter, a known byproduct of burning sugar cane. Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill. The new bill would strike that language, though its prospects are uncertain in a Republican-dominated legislature.

“It is a danger to health, a matter of environmental justice and also allows the sugar industry to operate without consequences,” Eskamani said, referring to previous legislative changes. “It’s not appropriate, no one else can do it. It doesn’t make sense that we are creating a different set of rules just because it’s a powerful industry.

US Sugar and Florida Crystals, the region’s two largest sugar companies, did not respond to requests for comment. They said they are committed to operating safely in the clearings and denied that the cane burning is responsible for the residents’ health problems.

Meanwhile, the issue is playing out in Florida’s gubernatorial race, where voters will vote next year. Asked about ProPublica reporting, U.S. Representative Charlie Crist, a Democrat who served as governor of Florida from 2007-2011 and is running for office again, pledged to improve air surveillance in the clearings while “pushing to move away from burning and towards a cleaner harvesting process, which would create more jobs for local residents.”

The United States is an outlier among the top sugar producing countries in the world. Brazil, India and Thailand have all decided to end or severely limit the burning of sugar cane, citing environmental and public health concerns related to the practice.

“I recognize the harm done to the Glades communities, primarily black and Hispanic Floridians,” Crist said. “We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to air pollution and the health risks this community faces.”

He lambasted the legislature for its past efforts to protect the industry. “When wealthy communities in the East complain about fires, they take action. But when the people of the Glades voice their concerns, Tallahassee looks away. And when the Florida legislature acts, it seems to make it worse, ”Crist said. As governor in 2008, he negotiated with US Sugar to buy land of the company to help restore the Everglades – a deal many environmentalists praised at the time, though it was cut dramatically amid a sour economy. Others criticism as a sort of bailout for the company.

DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment. Senator Annette Taddeo, a Democrat who is also a candidate for governor, also did not say.

Crist said he would support Eskamani’s bill and noted that the agriculture commissioner, who oversees the sugar industry, can “stop authorizing burning permits.” The post is currently held by Nikki Fried, one of her Democratic opponents in the governor’s primary. She did not return requests for comment, but she has already highlighted her efforts to make changes to the state’s sugarcane burning program. In 2019, it imposed restrictions on burning, such as denying permits when air quality is poor, in an effort to minimize the impact of smoke.

“Keeping Florida residents, communities and the environment safe is my top priority,” she said in a previous statement.

Analysis by The Post and ProPublica found that the ministry turned down more permits in the 2020-21 harvest season than it had on average over the past five seasons, but the total number of burns was about the same.

Fried also said she supports the development of alternative harvesting methods that do not involve burning, but her office said none “have yet emerged as an environmentally and economically viable option.”

The harvest season started recently, and some Glades residents say the changes to the burn schedule haven’t done much. Thelma Freeman keeps her grandchildren inside when she sees what locals call “black snow,” the ash that falls from the burning cane. In a recent interview, she said the pollution was more serious than ever.

“It’s never better,” she said.

Lulu Ramadan and Maya Miller contributed reporting.

Rachel J. Bradford