Big Sugar must stop open-pit burning of sugarcane fields

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When the cane fields burn and the skies darken over the Everglades, mothers bring the children back inside. It should tell you everything you need to know.

As sugar farmers burn acre after acre to facilitate each harvest, month after month, residents know to avoid the soot that descends on their streets, sidewalks, playgrounds and backyards. They fear attacks of coughs, asthma and other lung conditions.

A joint investigation by the Palm Beach Post and nonprofit newsroom ProPublica showed how, in search of profit, Florida’s sugar giants dropped this ash on the state’s poorest residents, year after year, insisting that it does not cause any harm.

We live and raise our children in the Glades, US Sugar representatives told Post’s editorial board. “Would we take our chances if we thought it wasn’t safe?” ” they ask. Businesses comply with federal air quality standards, they noted.

In fact, as Post / ProPublica’s year-long survey showed, the only air quality sensor on which this assessment is based was performing poorly eight years ago. Earlier this month, it still failed to meet strict accuracy standards set by federal environmental regulators.

The measures environmental regulators follow are based on the contamination levels averaged over time, minimizing the acute, real-time effects of acres of cane ablaze in black clouds that envelop the homes of the same workers hired to work the fields. muddy.

Florida’s clean air law enforcement sees its skies clouded by a Republicans-led climate of anti-regulatory and anti-environmental sentiment, polluted by legislative lobbying that surpasses any other industry in the state .

Palm Beach County emits the largest amount of particulate matter from farm fires of any county in the country, almost entirely from cane burning. Even as the United States Environmental Protection Agency considers tougher protections for public health, Florida lawmakers this spring passed legislation ostensibly protecting farmers from legal challenges over pollution from the sea. ‘air. Governor Ron DeSantis signed it into law in April.

Burns in dozens of cane fields, every day for months, rid the stems of outer leaves, aiding the processing that generates 21 million tonnes of cane sugar each year, more than any other state. That’s a catch of $ 650 million.

The sugar giants say there is no other realistic way to get the job done. But somehow, Brazil, Thailand and India recognize the dangers of open burning and have found alternative methods.

Even if it costs a few extra pennies for every bag of supermarket sugar, why can’t the same state whose engineers are planning missions to Mars find a smarter way to remove the leaves from a cane stalk?

It is telling that when residents of the wealthier suburbs of Wellington and Royal Palm Beach fought the industry in 1991, the Florida Department of Agriculture quickly banned sugar producers from burning when the wind blows towards the sea. ‘is. Such courtesy was not shown to the 31,000 inhabitants of the clearings, many of whom are black or Hispanic.

They are out of sight, out of mind and find it difficult to oppose the largest employer in their area. Big Sugar supports 12,000 workers during each six month harvest season.

Aside from the immediate health concerns for our local fellow citizens, what about the bigger picture: in this time of global action on climate change, how on earth can we admit the open burning of hundreds of thousands of acres of sugar cane each year?

On one side of the county, Florida Power & Light is shutting down its last coal-fired plant and bragging about its shift to cleaner fuels and solar power. On the other, we have government-subsidized sugar producers in climate change denial, fueling the legislature with a sugar top of contributions while pumping black smoke into the atmosphere six months a year.

As we appreciate the sugar industry’s economic contribution to Glades, County and State, we implore its leaders to let go of their defensive and dedicate themselves to an environmental contribution: Stop the fires immediately. Be the hero.

But hearing no acknowledgment of the damage done and seeing no effort at reform, and with the state of Florida showing no sign of protecting residents from this primitive and dangerous practice, we urge the Biden administration to keep its promises to climate repair and to banish burns. The United States must rebuild the Environmental Protection Agency as a scientific protector of air and water and hold accountable those who endanger public health and safety.

There is no reason that this work cannot begin in our state, our county, our glades. It would be a breath of fresh air.



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