When the cane fields burn and skies turn black over the Glades, mothers bring children indoors. That should tell you all you need to know.
As sugar growers torch acre after acre to facilitate each harvest, month after month, residents know to avoid the soot that descends upon their streets, sidewalks, playgrounds and yards. They fear bouts of coughing, asthma and other lung ailments.
A joint investigation by The Palm Beach Post and nonprofit newsroom ProPublica has shown how, in pursuit of profits, Florida’s sugar giants have snowed this ash upon the state’s poorest residents, year after year, insisting that it causes no harm.
We live and raise our children in the Glades, U.S. Sugar representatives have said. “Would we take a chance if we thought it wasn’t safe?” they ask. The companies comply with federal clean air standards, they noted.
In fact, as the yearlong Post/ProPublica investigation showed, the one air quality sensor upon which that assessment relies was malfunctioning as far back as eight years ago and as of last week still didn’t meet federal accuracy standards. Further, what measures environmental regulators apply are based upon contamination levels averaged over time, downplaying the acute, real-time effects of acres of cane flaming into black clouds that envelop homes of the very laborers hired to work the mucky fields.
Florida’s clean-air enforcement finds its skies darkened by a Republican-led climate of anti-regulatory, anti-environmental sentiment, polluted by legislative lobbying that outspends any other industry in the state.
Palm Beach County emits the most particulate matter from agricultural fires of any county nationwide, almost entirely from cane burning. And even as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency weighs more-stringent protections for public health, Florida lawmakers this spring enacted legislation ostensibly protecting farmers from legal challenges over air pollution. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law in April.
The burns of dozens of cane fields, each day for months, rid the stalks of outer leaves, easing the processing that generates 21 million tons of cane sugar each year, more than any other state. That’s a $650 million take.
The sugar giants say there is no other realistic way to get the job done. But somehow Brazil, Thailand and India acknowledge the hazards of open burning and have found alternate methods.
Even if it costs a few extra pennies for each sack of supermarket sugar, why can’t the same state whose engineers are planning missions to Mars figure out a smarter way to take leaves off a cane stalk?
It’s telling that, when suburban residents of wealthier Wellington and Royal Palm Beach fought the industry in 1991, the Florida Department of Agriculture swiftly banned sugar growers from burning when the wind blows east. No such courtesy has been shown the 31,000 people of the Glades.
They’re out of sight, out of mind and hard-pressed to oppose their area’s largest employer. Big Sugar supports 12,000 workers during each six-month harvest season.
Immediate health concerns for our fellow local residents aside, what about the bigger picture: In this time of worldwide action against climate change, how on God’s Earth can we countenance open burning of hundreds of thousands of acres of sugar cane every year?
On one side of the county, we have Florida Power & Light closing its last coal-fired plant and boasting of its shift to cleaner fuels and solar power. On the other we have government price-supported sugar growers in climate change denial, feeding the Legislature a sugar high of contributions while pumping black smoke into the atmosphere six months a year.
While we appreciate the sugar industry’s economic contribution to the Glades, the county and the state, we implore its leaders to drop their defensiveness and dedicate themselves to an environmental contribution: Stop the fires immediately. Be the hero.
But hearing no acknowledgment of damage being done and seeing no effort at reform, and with the state of Florida showing no sign of protecting residents from this primitive and dangerous practice, we urge the Biden Administration to follow through on its pledges of climate repair and to ban the burns. The U.S. must rebuild the Environmental Protection Agency as a science-based protector of the air and water and hold accountable those who put public health and safety at risk.
There’s no reason this work can’t start in our state, our county, our Glades. That would be a breath of fresh air.
An editorial from the Palm Beach Post.