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'Right to Farm Act' Expansion Would Give Sugar Industry 'Immunity Shield' From Lawsuits, Says State Rep.

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State Representative Omari Hardy

"Black snow," the ash from burning sugarcane fields in the western part of Palm Beach County, is one source of concern for critics of House Bill 1601 — currently making its way through the Florida Legislature. The bill, which seeks to expand the existing "Right to Farm Act," adds "particle emissions" to the list of farming practices protected from lawsuits.

State Representative Omari Hardy, who represents northern Palm Beach County along the coast, says the addition of particle emissions to the bill “gives big sugar an immunity shield from lawsuits about how their practices have harmed human beings.”

The pre-harvest sugarcane burning across over 400,000 acres in the Glades area every year has had health impacts on the residents who live there, says Hardy.

“And it's those particles, those fine particles that get into their lungs when they breathe them that can cause things like asthma and other respiratory issues,” Hardy said. “And in addition to those particles, there are other chemicals in the air that are in gas form and not in physical form that are carcinogenic and that are known to cause cancer, according to the scientific literature.”

There is a federal class-action lawsuit against U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals, and other companies, filed on behalf of a group of Palm Beach County residents. It alleges that the pre-harvest sugarcane burns release harmful pollutants to nearby residences.

In an interview with WLRN’s Danny Rivero, Florida agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried raised concerns about adding an expansion to the existing Right to Farm bill, saying “when there's not a necessity, why pass legislation?”

“We have farmers and ranchers in our state that are the best conservationists of our environment. And so, I don't know why this bill was necessary or is necessary,” Fried said. “I haven't seen any of the issues that they are alleging they're trying to protect.”

Fried also raised concerns about the legal standards in the bill.

“As an attorney and as a consumer advocate, I am going to fight against the denial of access to the courts,” Fried said. “And I unfortunately think that this bill has gone a little bit too far, even outside of the necessity issue that I just addressed.”

Hardy believes Fried is “in a tough spot.”

“Her job is to issue permits for sugarcane burning. It's not clear to me that she has the authority to refuse to issue any permits for sugarcane burning, especially when the groundwork for a transition away from burning to green harvesting has not been laid,” Hardy said.

Hardy gave more reasons why he opposes the bill, which is headed to a full Florida House vote, in a conversation with WLRN's Wilkine Brutus.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity:

WLRN: You've said that the bill would undermine legal recourse from people in those communities by turning their legal complaints about air pollution into nuisance lawsuits. Supporters of the legislation say the bill will not impact the current lawsuit. Do you agree?

HARDY: The bill would definitely affect the lawsuit. There are Supreme Court precedents on this in the state of Florida that when certain changes are made to the law, the Legislature doesn't have to specify that the changes are retroactive in order for them to actually be retroactive. And that is contrary to what the bill sponsors said. But there's case law on this and it's very clear if this bill passes, the lawsuit effectively dies. And people in the Glades who are suing for justice, who are suing because their health has been harmed by this practice, will have the doors of the courthouse closed to them.

Colin Walkes is the former mayor of Pahokee. During your press conference, he said people with public health concerns are seeking green harvesting alternatives, not the elimination of the sugar industry or the jobs. How do the two coexist and what role should the state government play?

Mayor Walkes made a very good point in that this is not really about attacking the sugar industry. This is about wanting to address a specific practice that is one of many practices that sugar farmers could use to harvest their cane. Green harvesting is used in Brazil. It's used in Australia. Sixty five percent of the sugar cane in Louisiana is harvested mechanically without burning.

So there are alternatives. And so this is not about attacking the sugar industry or or trying to affect the jobs that people have. It's about asking the sugar industry to be good neighbors to the people who are there and to acknowledge that this practice is not good for the environment, it's not good for people's health. It's also not good for the climate when you're burning over 400,000 acres of sugarcane every year.

Is there anything in the bill that is good for the Florida farms — especially as development increases in Florida? Is this a matter of changing the language in the bill itself, not outright eliminating it?

The narrative around the bill is not what’s in the text of the bill. This is a classic bait and switch. The narrative is about development and people moving their farms and complaining about what people have been doing for years. But the bill is about providing immunity to Big Sugar. The bill is about providing immunity to all sorts of farmers for all sorts of harm that they might do to people during the course of farming and neither of those aspects of the bill are things that I can support.