Sugarcane Nightmare: Our Children must not live in a Hazard Zone!
Florida’s Palm Beach County braces for its annual “burn season,” which begins each year in October and runs for six months at least through March to as late as May. The Florida sugar industry begins its harvest season for 400,000 acres (625 square miles) of sugarcane fields. Assuming a six-month burn season, this means there were approximately 43 fires per day in 2019. During the burning, walls of fire rise from 30 to 40 feet in the air, and then create smoke plumes reaching over a half-mile high, stretching as much as 26 miles from the actual burn sites, around four small Black and Latino communities in Palm Beach south of Lake Okeechobee — Belle Glade, Pahokee, South Bay and Canal Point. Hendry, Glade and Martin counties are also targets. This is all designated as part of the “Hazard Zone.”
Green Party of Florida
By Rose Roby and Jeff Roby
November 7, 2020
Roads become impassible. Children walk to school wearing trash bags to protect themselves from the noxious “Black Snow” which bombards everything in the area. The greasy, sticky, toxic ash accumulates on parks, schools, roads, hospitals, restaurants, and shopping areas.
Smoke filters into people’s homes, schools and hospitals. Schools stock up on asthma inhalers. Air conditioner and water filters become clogged. Still-lit embers sometimes rain down from the fields. Flowers die and gardens are poisoned. Children wheeze and cry, and adults cough when they breathe. Everything stinks.
People are always getting sick. The burning spews out at least 3,000 tons of poisons every year. Its dozens of carcinogens include formaldehyde, methane, benzene, ammonia, carbon monoxide, and acenaphthylene (linked to genetic mutations). Then there are the pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides too numerous to list. They take a heavy toll, and now the Covid-19 crisis exacerbates this to an ever deadlier level.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sugar’s Public Affairs Director Judy Sanchez brags:
“Florida Department of Environmental Protection has monitored air quality in Belle Glade … for decades. The data show that the air in the farming area meets all state and federal EPA clean air standards and ranks among the best air quality in the state.”
She does not note that “Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection operates just one monitor in the region, in Belle Glade, which collects data on just one pollutant, PM2.5.”
A cautionary skirmish
The Palm Beach Post tells an interesting story: “Good deeds punished in sugar-enviro charity spat.”
“A scathing letter — signed by Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson, Pahokee Mayor Keith Babb Jr., South Bay Mayor Joe Kyles Sr. and Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay [District 6] — accused Everglades Trust Executive Director Kimberly Mitchell of turning down the donation from U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals and Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative to “score cheap political points during this time of crisis.”
Mitchell’s friend, restaurateur Rodney Mayo had worked through a local nonprofit called Hospitality Helping Hands (H3) for Mayo’s restaurant to provide free meals to those who had lost their jobs due to the coronavirus. Mitchell had convinced local townships to provide the $30,000 needed to run the program. The politicians tipped off Big Sugar. A rep from Florida sugar giants U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals and Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative showed up unexpectedly, with the $30,000. All they wanted was for Mayo to appear in a photo op.
“Mitchell was ‘pretty upset,’ Mayo said, and believed the donation would be turned into publicity for the sugar companies.”
Mitchell ultimately found alternative funding and the Sugar check was rejected. Life went on, as H3 drummed up local funding on its own. That’s when the politicians retaliated with their letter.
Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson even stated that when people mess with Big Sugar:
“it’s like pulling a spark plug from the engine of our community, and we cannot allow that to happen under any circumstances.”
A small story? Indeed. But its very smallness is what makes it so interesting — that some of the largest sugar corporations in the world would even be paying attention to such a small charity in such a small town over a mere $30,000. Mitchell and Mayo hadn’t launched some attack against Big Sugar. They just didn’t want to be pulled into their corporate publicity stunt.
Touchy, touchy, touchy.
The Big Sugar behemoth
Florida harvests 17.6 million tons of sugar cane annually, constituting more than half the 32 million tons produced in the entire United States. The plantations south of Lake Okeechobee account for about 90% of Florida’s harvest.
Three corporate behemoths are (not so affectionately) known in Florida as “Big Sugar”:
United States Sugar Corporation rules 230,000 acres of land in the counties of Hendry, Glades and Palm Beach. As the largest producer of sugar cane in the United States by volume, it produces over 700,000 tons per year.
Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida is made up of 44 grower-owners who hold an aggregate of 70,000 acres. They run a vertically integrated operation involved in the farming, processing, marketing, refining and distribution of cane sugar. The Cooperative, in conjunction with Florida Crystals, owns Domino Sugar, which graces so many an American breakfast table.
Florida Crystals Corporation, with 190,000 acres in Palm Beach County, is run by the four Fanjul brothers, Cuban born Alfonso “Alfy” Fanjul Jr., José “Pepe” Fanjul, Alexander Fanjul, and Andres Fanjul. Alfonso served as co-chairman of Bill Clinton’s Florida campaign in 1992 and is a major contributor and fundraiser for the Democratic Party. His brother Pepe contributes to the Republicans. The Fanjuls are big-time philanthropists in Palm Beach, that being a key part of their local political clout. The Fanjul operation, with 4 raw sugar mills and 10 refineries in 6 countries, makes them the world’s largest refiner of cane sugar, producing 6 million tons of sugar annually.
Bloomberg Green reports:
“Sugar wields plenty of power in Florida, and there’s little incentive to change. The industry gave more than $8 million to political candidates in the 2016 election cycle.”
In each of the past five years, the industry has spent more than $10 million/year on lobbying, contributing a total of approximately $5.5, $7.2, and $8.5 million to political candidates in the 2020, 2018, and 2016 election cycles, respectively. U.S. taxpayers make a welfare transfer of about $1.2 billion to the growers and processors in market allotments, import quotas, and price supports.
The government subsidizes them to the tune of $4 billion.
How is poisoning children made legal?
This heavily-subsidized industry is highly “regulated.” Its location on the edge of the environmentally sensitive Everglades brings it under all sorts of scrutiny from multiple layers of governmental jurisdiction. There is the Environmental Protection Agency, with its junior Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Big Sugar directly falls under the jurisdiction of the Florida Department of Agriculture. The Florida Forest Service, under the Department of Agriculture, directly manages the cane-burning. Local and state health and environmental departments also enter the game.
This is all locked in place by Florida statute and enforced by an obscure tangle of lower agency regulations. That is how it allowed U.S. Sugar’s Judy Sanchez (above) to tout the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in giving Big Sugar a clean bill of health against charges that it is poisoning people.
The grassroots organization Stop the Burn states:
“Burning permits are granted on a day-by-day basis, judging on wind conditions. As many as 70+ plus burn permits covering 5,000 acres impacting an area of up to 1500 square miles can be approved upon a single day …
“[T]there is currently only one official state-run air quality monitoring device located in the entire Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). That one monitoring device measures for only one pollutant, PM2.5, and is registered as non-regulatory; that means it does not meet standards required for its data to be used to determine compliance with National Ambient Air Quality Standards.”
The end result is that all this so-called regulation in fact serves as a suit of armor to fend off any complaint or call for change.
When complaints over the burning arise, they are routed, to the Forest Service, or Health Departments or local politicians. But residents have developed a certain cynicism. Standard practice when making such complaints is that the repevajt agency or department politely accepts the complaint, and then passes the complaint, along with the complainant’s address and phone number, to the particular offending Sugar corporation. That corporation’s friendly rep then calls the complainant’s home to “discuss” the matter.
Reinforcing Big Sugar’s regulatory picket line is a massive publicity machine. One such Big Sugar front group. describes itself thus:
“The Sustainable Agriculture Fire Education (S.A.F.E.) Communities Initiative is a group of Business, Agricultural, Sugarcane Farmers, Community and Faith leaders which seeks to educate residents on the fact that pre-harvest agricultural burns are carefully regulated by the Florida Forest Service, are not linked through any medical research to negative health conditions and are necessary in South Florida’s hot, humid climate.”
They then carry the attack to Stop the Burn, Florida Sierra Club, public interest lawyers, and any and all local opposition. A related front for the growers — the Lake Okeechobee Business Alliance — writes:
“Funded by wealthy, out-of-state billionaire hedge fund managers, special interest activists across Florida continually attack Florida’s sugarcane farmers. These attacks distort the truth, cast hard-working farmers as villains, and disrupt the livelihoods of the people of the Glades communities.”
We can all sleep better at night.
Not so fast, Slippery Jim! Stop the Burn!
The February 7, 2008 edition of UPI cold-bloodedly relates an incident in the town of South Bay, in Palm Beach County:
“More than a dozen south Florida elementary school students were taken to the hospital Wednesday because of heavy smoke from burning cane fields. … Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue officials said students at Rosenwald Elementary School in South Bay, Fla, were taken to the hospital about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday with respiratory problems. … an unfortunate incident.”
Grist last August gives it a bit more flesh and blood:
“In fourth grade, [a student’s] teacher always kept the classroom’s blinds closed so her students wouldn’t see the fire. One day, she forgot. “Do you see this?” a classmate, seated by the window, asked Phillips. “Am I crazy?” Even from the far side of the classroom, Phillips could see giant flames engulfing acres of sugarcane fields outside. “That’s when everybody started screaming,” Phillips remembered. Students from other classrooms rushed in when they heard the cries from down the hall. “Everybody thought they were gonna die.”
The wall of flame from the cane field had been a mere 100 yards from the school. The school had made a pact with the U.S. Sugar since 2002 that, in putting up with the burning, they would receive $7,000 a year. One month after the incident, that pact was renewed. In 2017, the blood price was upped to $12,000. And they added an extra janitor to clean up the filth. Claudia Shea, director of communications for the School District of Palm Beach County, says “the School Board has no authority to regulate agricultural activities of the region.” Move along kid, you bother me.
The local politicians, including District 6 County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay and the local mayors, are in the pocket of Big Sugar. But residents are outraged with a litany of complaints from teachers, residents, workers, and students about the burnings. Teachers at the schools are “discouraged” from speaking out. The Roseland incident and so many incidents like it have left a simmering rage within the Glades community.
Since 2015, a grassroots organization called Stop the Burn has worked with Sierra Club Organizing Representative Patrick Ferguson to stop the ravages perpetrated by Big Sugar and its minions. For instance, they demand measures like making the State of Florida expand the “buffer zone” required to separate the cane fields from local communities. Their long-range goal is to completely end the burning. As Stop the Burn explains:
“Our movement is led by residents directly impacted by pre-harvest sugar field burning. Stop the Burn activists and leaders live in Palm Beach, Glades, Martin, and Lee counties … a dedicated core of community leaders has used the power of their voices to shine a spotlight on the injustice of pre-harvest sugarcane burning. Their advocacy has shone a national spotlight on what was once a little known regional issue.”
Their focus is simple:
“We are organizing to pressure the sugar industry to end the outdated, toxic practice of pre-harvest sugar field burning and make the switch to the modern, sustainable, “burn-free” method of green harvesting.”
Sustainable Agriculture Fire Education (S.A.F.E.), the front group for Big Sugar, clutches at straws in opposing green harvesting. such as that it helps workers see where they are going. Makes it safer for truck traffic. Eliminates the messy cleanup of leaves and dry materials. The transport trucks would release more pollution in the communities they drive through. It wastes fuel. Unburnt sugarcane harvesting reduces available soil nitrogen, etc.
In plain English, they don’t want to manage any cleanup. They fret that it would cost them more money, and they’d have to hire more workers. Weighed against poisoning poor people, well, the priorities are obvious.
Florida Sierra Club retorts:
“Green harvesting is practiced by major sugarcane producers around the world, including growers in Louisiana. Florida growers even green harvest, but only when it is convenient for them. Where green harvesting has been embraced large-scale, the sugarcane leaves and tops, instead of going up in smoke, are utilized to create additional sources of income or savings for the growers and more sugar-related jobs. In addition, stopping the burn also means less climate impacts, less water pollution, and more soil regeneration — all critically important for the restoration of the Everglades. Green harvesting is a win-win-win situation.”
Let’s keep it simple. First, you can see the poison in the air. In fact, Florida’s Big Sugar has become an anomaly in the industry. Brazil, the world leader in sugar cane production, has almost totally converted to green harvesting. 85% of Australia’s crop is harvested green. Thailand, the world’s 4th largest producer, will abolish burning in the next two years. And Louisiana green harvests 65% of its crop.
Now the Berman Law Group is dragging Big Sugar into court. The firm has updated its class action suit against Big Sugar and is proceeding to sue nine sugar cane corporations:
United States Sugar Corporation
Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida
Florida Crystals Corporation
Okeelanta Corporation (a Crystals subsidiary)
Osceola Farms (a Crystals subsidiary)
Trucane Sugar Corporation (a Crystals subsidiary)
Sugarland Harvesting Co. (a U.S. Sugar subsidiary)
Independent Harvesting, Inc.
J & J Ag Products, Inc.
The suit seeks damages done to named individuals’ personal health and property. The “Medical Monitoring Class” is defined as follows:
All persons (past or present) over the age of 40, or who will attain the age of 40, who have resided in the Hazard Zone for at least one pre-harvest sugarcane burn season during the applicable statute of limitations period, including the period following the filing date of this action.
… and a “Battery Class” is defined as follows:
“All persons (past or present) over the age of 40, or who will attain the age of 40, who have resided in the Hazard Zone for at least one pre-harvest sugarcane burn season during the applicable statute of limitations period, including the period following the filing date of this action.”
… and a “Battery Class” is defined as follows:
“All persons (past or present) who have resided or currently reside in the Hazard Zone during the applicable statute of limitations period, including the period following the filing date of this action.?
At issue is “Whether Defendants’ sugarcane burning activities were negligent and/or reckless.” The suit claims that such is the case because “green harvesting” provides an alternative that is safer and cleaner and has proven to be financially comparable to burning, a point made at length by the Stop the Burn organization.
The recklessness is compounded because of the Covid-19 crisis:
“The CDC has recently recognized that ‘[p]eople with or recovering from COVID-19 may have diminished lung function and therefore might be at particularly high risk of respiratory health effects after exposure to smoke from open burning,’ and recommends “implementing a temporary ban on open burning as a quick and effective way to reduce smoke exposure for people with COVID-19.”
Yet “Defendants have continued to burn with abandon during the COVID crisis.”
Even though an actual banning of the burning practice is beyond the scope of the suit, the obvious negligence on the part of Big Sugar opens the door for pressing the issue with the Florida State Legislature in the future.
The suit demands judgment against Defendants, and prays for relief as follows:
“An order requiring that Defendants pay compensatory and other damages to Plaintiffs and the Class members, for their economic and non-economic damages identified herein, to the full extent permitted by the law.” In addition to damages, the Sugar barons would be ordered to provide “medical monitoring.”
Small compensation for the ruin that Big Sugar has inflicted on the entire community, you might say. You would be quite right. But this is going to be a long, hard fight, and there is a penalty exacted via the lawsuit itself. In other words, if judgment is granted for financial compensation, and medical monitoring and medical expenses, that fact establishes that the companies were in fact “negligent and/or reckless” in not adopting the clean process of green harvesting.
The industry is not exactly popular. While Big Sugar provides Florida jobs, they are known as bullies and their cane burning is notorious. Stop the Burn and the Berman suit create a political opening for tackling the issue on many fronts, from assailing the political agencies that so grossly coddle the industry to a direct political campaign against corporate greed.
The Covid-19 crisis gives the issue a new urgency. Howie Hawkins, Green Party 2020 presidential candidate makes the point:
‘Cane burning releases tons of particulate matter and carcinogenic chemicals that rain down on local Black communities that have a 40% poverty rate. The cane burning has damaged the health of the entire community for decades with extremely high rates of asthma, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and cancer. Now they add the ravages of COVID-19 to the most vulnerable communities. Sugar cane growers in Louisiana, Brazil, India, and Thailand have shown that there is no financial excuse for not employing green harvesting. It is time to end this shameful racism and environmental pollution by banning the burning of sugar cane fields altogether.”
— Rose Roby, co-chair, Pinellas County Green Party
— Jeff Roby, secretary, Pinellas County Green Party