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Belle Glade’s Falling 'Black Snow' Is An Even Greater Concern As The COVID-19 Pandemic Continues

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Sugar cane in Florida. Residents in Belle Glade and other parts of Palm Beach County say the impacts of the burning of the crop have been a constant issue for them.

People who live in Belle Glade, and surrounding rural areas where sugarcane burning takes place, have been worried about health hazards for a long time — they say now, with the pandemic, they're even more concerned about exposure to the smoke.

From October to around April, farmers light fires in the sugarcane fields to strip the plant down to the stalk and make it easier to harvest. Long-time residents who live near where sugarcane burning takes place have been worried about health hazards for a long time — they say now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, they're even more concerned about exposure to the smoke.

Skill Brown was born and raised in Belle Glade. The 38-year-old truck driver has five daughters. He pulled over on the side of the road to tell WLRN what it’s like during the burning season.

“So you could be sitting at any random moment and all of sudden these little black flakes of ash just start raining down on you, messing up the paint on your car,” Brown said.

“It’s an awful smell. And it’s very strong. But being from Belle Glade, I’ve become accustomed to it. But my fiance, she’s not from Belle Glade. So we ride randomly and she says ‘Oh my god, it stinks.’ and I don’t even smell it. When it’s black snowing, you gotta ride with your windows up or you’ll have a problem inside your car — people who like their windows down inside their house — the black snow is very disrespectful,” Brown said.

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That’s what people who live in the Glades area call the ash falling from the sky — black snow. And during this pandemic, health experts say it’s important to be able to keep your windows open.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended temporarily banning agriculture burning. But health concerns about sugarcane burning have been going on for years.

In September, the Palm Beach County school board held a highly publicized meeting, mostly to discuss leadership issues surrounding the reopening of school campuses.

It was heated. The public agenda topics quickly shifted to sugarcane burning in the rural Glades area: Clewiston, Pahokee, South Bay, and Belle Glade. About a dozen recorded messages also urged the school district to consider student health during the pre-harvest sugarcane burning season, citing racial disparities and class differences.

A man named David Rae was one of several people to speak in person. He said, “sugarcane burning is a perfect example of environmental racism.”

“So following the CDC guidelines, advising that no burns go on, especially during the times of COVID, I am asking the board, as you go into this and talk and you relate to all these people on the health advisory boards, look into the effect of this, put some pressure on [Florida Agriculture Commissioner] Nikki Fried, which is the commissioner in charge of this, and U.S. Sugar,” Rae said.

“You all are leasing land to them,” Rae said, referring to land near Rosenwald Elementary School in South Bay.

Sugarcane burning was a non-agenda item on the meeting’s schedule. The school board did not respond to the concerns that day.

The Palm Beach County school district receives up to $12,000 for leasing land to U.S. Sugar. The district spokesperson told WLRN the agreement hasn’t changed.

The history and the health impacts

In 2008, several students at Rosenwald Elementary School were hospitalized for respiratory issues after a sugarcane burn near the school. An investigation, published by Grist earlier this year, reported on the U.S. Sugar harvests that happen about 100 yards from the school.

U.S Sugar is based in Clewiston — it’s been around for 90 years, and it’s the largest producer of cane sugar in the country. Sugarcane burning produces what’s called particulate matter or PM 2.5. It’s one among many hazardous pollutants produced by the burns.

Dr. Cheryl Holder is an internal medicine specialist and associate professor at Florida International University. She’s worried about those particles being inhaled by children.

“Well, all the lung problems that you could get with chronic exposure, COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), worsening lungs function and acutely, those who are asthmatic, can be triggered by all the smoke,” Holder said.

Dr. Holder was on her way out of the Jackson Memorial AAC West Outpatient clinic when she spoke to WLRN.

“And the thing with asthma, with children, which a lot of folks don't realize, is the days lost from school. And dealing with a chronic illness means their chances of being successful has been diminished by something that they didn't create.”

People demanding change in the Glades area want the sugar industry to stop burning their fields and find another way to prep the fields for harvesting. The term “green harvesting” comes up often; it’s a way of removing the sugarcane leaves without burning.

"When you look at it overall, and we have green harvesting available, we can improve the overall health outcomes of our entire population by just stopping an archaic process,” Holder said.

Green harvesting is already being done in some circumstances — but much less than burning.

The CDC’s recommendation cited the health risks of both agricultural burning and backyard burning — and suggested that communities consider temporary bans on this method of getting rid of waste from harvesting.

The industry and state's response

U.S. Sugar says, despite cries for a change, it’s following Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.

Judy Sanchez is U.S. Sugar's spokesperson. She said she believes the CDC’s recommendation to ban agricultural burning this year does not apply to the type of burning the company’s doing.

“Well, I believe that they were probably referring to backyard burning. I don’t believe they were referring to this type of burning that is very short, very controlled and monitored very safely,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez points to a network of air monitoring stations set up by the state and federal governments to measure pollutants like PM 2.5, the small smoke particles in the air during sugarcane burning season.

“There are actual, on the ground, EPA and Florida [Department of Environmental Protection] approved air quality monitors that operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 12 months a year. The PM 2.5 levels are lower than they are in suburban West Palm Beach,” Sanchez said.

"And they are well within these standards for good air quality.”

According to the Florida DEP, the air quality is generally better in the Glades area than the suburbs. But a spokesperson for the agency would not respond to questions about the air quality during burning season specifically.

Rae, the speaker who brought up racial inequities at the school board meeting, brought up that exact concern. And Brown, who drives his work truck back and forth to West Palm Beach, says local burn authorizations tend to protect wealthier areas to the east of the rural Glades region.

Brown is referring to the four geographical burn authorization zones from a 1992 Florida Division of Forestry report. The zones stretched from Wellington in the eastern Zone 1 to Belle Glade in Zone 4, the western part of the county, where a lot of the burns take place.

In the report, due to “a substantial number of nuisance complaints,” the Florida Department of Agriculture restricted the pre-harvest sugarcane burning when the smoke entered Zone 1.

Wellington is one of the wealthiest areas in Palm Beach County — and it's mostly white. According to U.S. Census figures, Belle Glade is predominantly Black and low-income. In 2019, the median household income in Belle Glade was just under $25,000 with a per capita income of $14,018. Palm Beach County’s median household income is over $63,000 with per capita income at $40,000.

Franco Ripple, spokesperson for Agriculture Commissioner Fried, said the office redrew zone maps to “lessen potential smoke impact across all communities.”

Ripple said the commissioner announced a series of changes to the state’s burning program in October 2019 and August 2020, “including the first major changes to sugarcane burning in 30 years.”

"Besides adding new factors including air quality into burn authorizations, as well as new bans on burning when smoke dispersion is low, the changes include redrawn zone maps,” Ripple told WLRN.

"The two additional zones (for a total now of six zones) particularly take into account population growth in Zone 4, in which the population has increased by 67 percent in the past 30 years.”

Ripple says Wellington remains in Zone 1 in the re-aligned zone map, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2021.

Sanchez, the spokesperson for U.S. Sugar, believes the racial and socio-economic concerns brought up at the school board meeting are invalidated by government data.

"People have tried to portray this as a racial issue ... to try to make a case that the Glades is somehow being treated in a different manner because of the makeup or the socio-economic status flies in the face of the actual on the ground air quality monitoring,” Sanchez said.

'There is something wrong with this process'

A Harvard study earlier this year looked at air pollution and people with COVID-19. It found that infected people exposed to the kind of pollution from sugarcane burning are more likely to die from the virus than patients who aren’t exposed.

In June, residents of Belle Glade filed a class action lawsuit. It names two of the largest sugar companies in the country — U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals.

The lawsuit argues cane burning exposes residents to pollution from toxic smoke. And they’re asking the court to order the growers to stop the burning. Skill Brown is worried about his daughters who attend school in the Glades area.

"Obviously if you’re breathing in ash, it gotta be something wrong with it. And the fact that, when they're burning cane, if the wind is blowing too much toward the east, they don’t burn the cane cause they can’t let the smoke go into the Wellington area," Brown said.

"And if they’re protecting the citizens of Wellington, obviously the sugar industry itself knows there is something wrong with this process.”