Sugar cane burning remains a controversial practice in rural communities in Western Palm Beach County. From October until April, sugar cane growers burn the outer leaves of the cane plants in order to harvest the sugar.
Now, two Belle Glades residents have filed a class action lawsuit to ban the practice of sugar cane burning before the season begins this fall, which they argue leads to respiratory illness and the devaluation of homes and property. Hoping to represent 40,000 residents, they are advocating for sugar companies to transition to “Green Harvesting” practices, which are increasingly commonplace in countries like Brazil and Thailand.
Sugar plays a significant role in the local economies of these communities; an estimated 90 percent of the sugar grown in Florida comes from Palm Beach County.
Patrick Fergusson is an organizer with the Sierra Club and leads their campaign to end the practice of sugar cane burning in Western Palm Beach County. He spoke with Luis Hernandez on Sundial about the economic, environmental and health concerns of burning.
Editorial note: We reached out to U.S. Sugar for a comment prior to today's broadcast. We received a written statement which we included below.
WLRN: In the conversations you had with residents of that area, what did you hear from them?
FERGUSSON: Well, a common theme that we do hear is that folks are told by their doctors when they seek treatment for their reoccurring respiratory issues that the best long-term solution for them is to move to a community away from the Glades, with better year-round air quality. Just not something many folks have the resources nor the desire to do and nor should they half to.
Doctors are telling residents [to] move?
Yes, that's a common story that we have heard from residents. In fact, many of the folks who are actively involved in and are leading our campaign have family members themselves, especially children, who suffer from respiratory issues like asthma which are exacerbated during the sugar cane burning season and they require inhalers.
We're talking about children, but you've also spoken to teachers right?
Yes. Teachers who have taught all over the state of Florida have been shocked at what they found at teaching in Glades community schools. They've said they've never taught more students that suffer from issues like asthma and require the use of so many inhalers. One of the local schools which is surrounded by sugar cane fields, the City of South Bay, had to be evacuated in years past due to sugar cane smoke from a nearby sugar cane field inundating the school. Six kids had to be sent to the hospital for emergency treatment and many more on site as a result. It's pretty disconcerting to hear that especially when we know that the industry does not have to burn, and you know there's an alternative like green harvesting in place that makes this burning and all the negative impacts obsolete.
What do we know about the longterm exposure of this smoke on resident's health?
The majority of the medical research on this has taken place in Brazil. They’ve taken into account annual hospital visits for respiratory issues and cancer rates for those who live in areas surrounded by major sugar cane burning operations. The research is new on this topic, so there will be more coming in the future. But another thing to keep in account, especially with these Glades communities, is that the EPA has an environmental justice impact index health map. It lists the Glades communities in the 80-100 percentile average risk rate for lifetime residents for respiratory health impacts and for cancer risks.
Below is the comment from U.S. Sugar we received after today's broadcast:
The complaint filed earlier today by some Boca Raton trial attorneys is currently under review.
We are American farmers and stand behind the safety and integrity of our farming practices, which are highly regulated and legally permitted on a daily basis by the government. Our farming practices are safe, environmentally sound, highly regulated and closely monitored. Beyond that, we live in these Glades communities and raise our families here – our children and grandchildren – in the neighborhoods, schools and churches throughout these small, close-knit farming towns.
Fortunately, decades of independent air quality monitoring and data show that our communities, along with our counties of Palm Beach, Hendry and Glades, have some of the best air quality in the entire state, better than the state average, year after year.
Lastly, while seeming to be done on behalf of our communities, this lawsuit actually attacks the very farming that supports all the jobs in our communities.
The health, safety and jobs of our communities all are vitally important to U.S. Sugar.