Legal action targets sugar industry in Florida Everglades

In the largely low-income African-American farming communities of western Palm Beach County, the annual sugarcane harvest from October to May means months of intermittent smoke billowing from the cane fields and black soot. falling from the sky.

Sugar companies like Clewiston-based US Sugar control 500,000 acres of the Everglades agricultural area, which produces 25 percent of all the sugar in the United States. The smoke and soot are the result of the harvesting process, which involves burning sugar cane, a tall perennial grass that reaches 20 feet in height. Sugarcane stems are filled with sucrose, which can be turned into refined sugar. For easier access to sugar, the vast sugarcane fields of South Florida are set on fire every year to burn the stems stripped of their leaves. The bare stems are then harvested, stacked on trucks and sent to mills.

But during harvest, ashes from the fields can fall thick enough to cover homes and vehicles. Carcinogenic particles in the air are so ubiquitous in the rural towns of Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay that elementary school nurses continue to breathe nebulizers for sick children throughout the season.

An ongoing class action lawsuit on behalf of residents claims the fire is causing measurable damage to human health, saying damages for residents’ respiratory illnesses are long overdue. The lawsuit says burning sugar cane is an archaic and unnecessary practice that causes serious damage to people and property.

“Our plaintiffs suffer constant damage to their properties and also describe health issues including problems with breathing and congestion,” said attorney Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman, the firm representing residents of County of Palm Beach in the lawsuit. “In particular, two complainants have family members whose asthma worsens dramatically during burn season. A complainant is so affected that she sometimes leaves South Bay to stay with her family in Georgia.

The class action lawsuit has been advancing since 2019. US Sugar and the other sugar companies named in the lawsuit are aggressively arguing for the termination before Judge Rodney Smith in Miami Federal Court. The Florida sugar industry appears to view the lawsuit as a serious threat to the way it does business – late last year, US Sugar began distributing a first “State of Our Air” report to communities where ashes fall, arguing that the air is safe and clean.

“Glades communities have one of the best air qualities in the state,” the company said in the report, which reminded residents that US Sugar provides the area with some of the best and only jobs. The company is a major employer in the region, with many families relying on seasonal cane work for generations.

Despite claims by US Sugar, a joint Grist and Type Investigations investigation last year cited Sierra Club analysis of US Environmental Protection Agency data showing that 3,000 tonnes of hazardous pollutants, including a multitude of carcinogens are released into the air each year by the burning of sugar cane in South Florida. And the technique may not even be necessary: ​​in other sugarcane-producing regions of the world, such as Brazil, Thailand and even Louisiana, the practice of soot is gradually being abandoned in favor of ” green harvest ‘mechanical, which does not require burning.

US Sugar and his co-defendants say they comply with state and federal oversight and regulations and say residents of the burn area cannot prove demonstrable damage to health or property related to smoke and ashes. US Sugar did not respond to New times‘requests for comments. [See editor’s note at end of story.]

Since the case was filed, mayors and pastors across the region have voiced an unfavorable opinion on the trial, most notably during an event in October broadcast on Facebook Live. Some residents affected by the burn are torn over whether to hold their family’s employer responsible for the damage caused by its business model, while others support the lawsuit claims.

“Our current political leaders support the sugar industry, and they have tried to spread fears that stopping the burn will lead to job losses,” said Muck City Black Lives Matter founder Robert Mitchell, who present in the elections of the municipal commission of Belle Glade, scheduled for March. . (Muck City is Belle Glade’s nickname and refers to the local field.)

“Sugar producers know the burn hurts, but when you’re a big business you don’t like being told what to do. Until then, our communities have health issues,” Mitchell adds.

The case also highlights another example of American racial inequity. The sugar producers are predominantly white, while the workers and residents of the towns affected by the fallout from the fire are predominantly black. The disparity even seems to be codified in one of the regulations enacted by the state in 1991, which requires sugar producers to wait to burn or use the green crop when the wind blows eastward, which would carry soot. and smoke all the way to Palm Beach County. white and rich coastal areas.

“Black Lives Matter and burning cane go hand in hand,” says Mitchell. “They’re burning this community of three African American cities. But when the wind blows east on majority white communities, they can’t do it. Take the city of Clewiston, for another example. Walmart with a tampon [against sugarcane smoke] around. But in our communities, they are allowed to burn. It tells me that black life in these communities doesn’t matter. ”

Mitchell says he too suffered from the smoke.

“I’m a singer and I always wondered why when I got home from college and came back to Belle Glade, after a day or two I couldn’t sing anymore. I was always getting hoarse,” says Mitchell, who attended the ‘Florida A&M University at Tallahassee. “I called it ‘the curse.’ Two years ago it finally made sense to me. I said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s because the cane is burning.'”

An unaffiliated Sierra Club “Stop the Burn” campaign at the trial focused on educating the public and targeting Florida Agriculture Commissioner Democrat Nikki Fried. Although Fried has authority over the burn and has made some minor regulatory changes since 2019, such as a nighttime burning ban, she has taken no action to stop the current burn season, despite the increased respiratory issues. linked to COVID-19.

The Sierra Club maintains that the green harvest will increase the revenues of the sugar industry over time and says the sugar industry has not provided any data to the contrary. The nonprofit environmental association argues that the industry’s harvesters are already fully equipped for green harvesting and that the green harvest movement has community support.

“Our Stop the Burn campaign has received no negative response from local residents,” said Patrick Ferguson of the Sierra Club. New times. “The sugar industry, along with the complicit local mayors, is scaring and lying in the community in an attempt to prevent the industry from having to tackle the real substance of the problems. Ultimately, health, the well-being and economic prospects of residents of and around the glades are left to suffer as sugar industry executives seek the short-term benefits of toxic and obsolete combustion over the long-term benefits associated with a transition towards a sustainable and modern green harvest. ”

The problem for Big Sugar appears to be the result, with some independent studies showing that harvesting green costs more. A study published in 2010 showed that harvesting sugarcane by burning is significantly cheaper and easier than harvesting green.

As the class action lawsuit progresses, it could lay bare the shifting norms of the Trump administration’s transition from environmental deregulation to the Biden administration’s clean air and climate goals.

More news on the case is expected in the coming weeks.

Editor’s Note: US Sugar did not respond to New times‘requests for comment before this story was posted, but the company provided an email response after the story was uploaded. Spokeswoman Judy Sanchez disputed that sugarcane burns are dangerous to human health, adding that “a large number of other sugarcane-producing regions use prescribed cane burns as standard practice” . Sanchez also wrote that efforts are made to protect sensitive areas during fires and that those areas are determined by assessing factors such as population density and proximity to schools or hospitals. “Socio-economic status is not – and never has been – a factor in determining sensitive areas,” she wrote.

Rachel J. Bradford