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Glades residents drop federal lawsuit against sugar farmers

The Sugar Cane Cooperative’s mill processes sugar cane at dawn in Belle Glade, Fla. The mill operates 24-hours a day during the harvest season, grinding as much as 26,000 tons of sugarcane per day.
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
Florida lawmakers are trying to make it harder to sue farmers. They say it's to prevent conflicts between existing farms and city dwellers who moved in next door. But environmentalists fear it's actually to protect the practice of sugarcane burning in South Florida.

In the Glades area, south and southeast of Lake Okeechobee, pre-harvest sugarcane burning season starts in October and runs through April — burning across over 400,000 acres and lighting 40 to 80 acre tracts of land at a time.

For years, many residents complained that the soot and ash from the burns, often referred to as “black snow” by locals, were a hazard to people's health and property. Their concerns culminated into a 2019 federal lawsuit against big sugar companies. The plaintiffs were seeking class action status.

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But that lawsuit was dropped Friday. And all parties agreed to dismiss the suit with prejudice — meaning to drop the case and not refile it.

Dr. Cheryl Holder is an internal medicine specialist and associate professor at Florida International University.

"I would've been more surprised if it had gone forward," said Holder. "Our systems here in Florida are very very conservative and have not taken on the urgency of climate action."

The burns release toxic pollutants such as particulate matter. Dr. Holder remains concerned about the toxic particles from the smoke for the plaintiffs who live in Belle Glade, Pahokee, South Bay, Canal Point, Indiantown, Clewiston and Moore Haven.

"I just ask anyone: Would you want your mother, your grandmother, anyone living next to the sugar cane fields when it's burning?'" Holder said.  "I don’t know anyone who would say that the studies show that it’s ok, so they should live there." 

Attorneys representing the plaintiffs did not immediately return WLRN's request for comment.

In 2021, the Florida legislature expanded the existing "Right to Farm Act," adding "particle emissions" to the list of farming practices protected from lawsuits.

Defendants in the lawsuit, such as the U.S. Sugar Corporation, have said they’ve met federal clean air standards.

“As sugarcane farmers have maintained from the start, the case against air quality in the farming region was without merit," U.S. Sugar representative Judy Sanchez said in a statement.

"We believed the science, data, and regulations that support our work every day would show that the air quality in the Glades is ‘good’ — the highest quality under federal regulations."

Residents, environmental advocates and medical professionals say their struggle to end pre-harvest sugarcane burning in the area will continue. The practice has been phased out by sugar producing countries such as Brazil.

Wilkine Brutus is a reporter and producer for WLRN and a guest faculty member at the Poynter Institute. The South Florida native produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs.