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Charlie Crist says he'd seek alternatives to Glades sugar cane burning as governor

Charlie Crist AP.jpeg
Chris O'Meara
/
AP
Rep. Charlie Crist at a campaign rally for the Florida primary.

Which candidate can best stand up to 'Big Sugar' has become a major issue in the Florida Democratic primary for governor.

Congressman Charlie Crist is running against Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. In a campaign stop in Fort Lauderdale this week, he delivered his latest salvo.

As Florida governor, Crist struck a deal for the state to buy the U.S. Sugar Corporation and use a chunk of its 187,000 acres to restore endangered wildlife habitats. The project failed during negotiations, in part due to the Great Recession in 2008.

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But the Democratic gubernatorial candidate said the plan would be back on the table if he is again elected governor. “I think it's very important to do so,” he said.

Crist said he would also pursue alternatives to the controversial burning technique used in the harvest of sugar cane in Palm Beach County.

The practice, which is being phased out in countries like Brazil, creates a combination of smoke and ash that some have linked to respiratory problems. Activists in the Glades, a majority Black community where these issues persist, say the current restrictions on burning aren't doing enough.

“There are ways to take care of that without having to burn and put people's lungs at risk. You don't have to do that. And we can do it in a much better fashion,” Crist told supporters.

These alternatives include 'green' harvesting, removing the tough outer layer of sugar cane with machines instead of fires. Countries, including Brazil, have shifted to these alternatives.

Crist’s comments come days after the Palm Beach Post published an investigation on his primary opponent Nikki Fried. The article details changes to burning regulations she announced as Agricultural Commissioner that residents of the Glades communities said didn’t change much.

Franco Ripple, spokesperson for Agriculture Commissioner Fried, told WLRN in 2020 that the office redrew zone maps for burning to “lessen potential smoke impact across all communities.”

Fried’s campaign did not reply to requests for comment on this article but did respond to the Post investigation by publishing a fact-sheet on her website.

The web post specified changes made to burning policies, many outlined in the newspaper's investigation, including “a minimum 80-acre (two field) buffer is now required between wildlands and burns in sugarcane fields on dry, windy days to reduce wildfire threat. ”

She also made, without proof, accusations that Post reporters were paid by Sierra Club, an environmental activist group. She later clarified the claim by saying it was “something I’ve heard – hopefully not true.”

According to other articles published this week, Associated Industries of Florida have given $265,000 to Florida Consumers First, Fried’s fundraising committee. This money is mostly from Florida Power and Light and Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar, according to the article published by Seeking Rents and the Orlando Sentinel.

“Of course, I get donations from everywhere, but that doesn’t mean that’s what’s empowering me,” Fried said when asked about the donations at a campaign stop on Tuesday night.

“The only people I am beholden to are the people, and I have said that time and time again, look at my record. It is defending the people, and that will never change.”

Before sugar cane is harvested, farmers set fire to it to burn away the leaves.
Dan Charles
/
NPR
Before sugar cane is harvested, farmers set fire to it to burn away the leaves.

Gerard Albert III is back in Broward, where he grew up, after reporting on crime and public safety in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and West Palm Beach. Albert is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University.