Florida’s Response to Annual Sugar Cane Burning Fails to Protect Affected Residents; Fails to Address the True Problem

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Russell Berman of The Berman Law Group, which has filed a class action lawsuit against sugar growers in federal court on behalf of western Palm Beach County Residents, releases statement

Russell Berman of The Berman Law Group, which has filed a class action lawsuit against sugar growers in federal court on behalf of western Palm Beach County residents, releases this statement after Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried announced changes to pre-harvest sugar field burning protocols:

“For six months out of every year, sugar growers burn tens of thousands of acres of sugar cane fields in western Palm Beach County and adjoining areas, releasing vast quantities of pollutants and harmful compounds into the air for days at a time. Nearby residents even have a name for the toxic ash: “black snow.” Black snow carries for miles, blanketing homes in communities such as Belle Glade and South Bay, diminishing property values and raising the risks of long-term health effects for residents.

The Commissioner’s announcement to require “an 80-acre buffer between a burn and wild lands on dry, windy days” does not address two fundamental issues: First, pre-harvest burning is an archaic method that can and should be banned all together; and second, a buffer between burns and wild lands still does not address the toxic ash still being dumped on affected residential areas.

Alternative clean, non-burning “green” sugar cane harvesting methods have existed for decades, but sugar producers have failed or refused to embrace them. Other sugar producing countries, such as Brazil, have banned pre-harvest burns, and studies have shown that green methods actually increase harvest yields after a short adjustment period.

The big sugar companies, despite their huge profits, simply do not want to spend the money to convert to green methods, which comes at a high property value and human cost to affected residents in communities that lack the economic and political clout to fight back.

The Commissioner’s other promise, that the state will consider the air quality index before authorizing a burn, also ignores the bigger picture here: The toxic micro-sized particulate matter given off by the burns is in itself harmful to residents in the miles-long and wide path of the black snow, becoming embedded deep in the lungs, regardless of the air quality index.

The Berman Law Group fully supports the efforts of the Sierra Club’s Stop Pre-harvest Sugar Field Burning Campaign, and the efforts of the Everglades Foundation to bring attention to this unjust situation. The wealthier sections of eastern Palm Beach County have been able to enforce wind restrictions during burn season that prevent the toxic ash from falling on their communities. But those restrictions mean that the poorer communities to the west — Belle Glade, South Bay, Pahokee, Indiantown, Clewiston and Ortona — bear the brunt of the “black snow” phenomenon.

The Berman Law Group looks forward to fighting for the rights of these poorer and underserved communities as it pursues the big sugar growers in federal court in an effort to stop the archaic and unnecessary pre-harvest burns once and for all.

The case, currently pending in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida before Judge Rodney Smith, is titled: Clover Coffie, et al. v. U.S. Sugar Company, et al., Case No. 9:19-cv-80730.

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Russell Berman
The Berman Law Group
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