Judge dismisses lawsuit over sugarcane burning

Plaintiffs may re-plead three of the seven counts

CLEWISTON— A United States district judge has dismissed a lawsuit by three plaintiffs who claimed they were injured by the smoke from sugarcane burning.

The court dismissed the complaint for lack of standing and will permit plaintiffs to attempt to re-plead only three of the seven counts. The plaintiffs have until May 22 to refile a second amended complaint. Defendants will then have a week to respond to their refiled complaint.

The lawsuit was filed against United States Sugar Corporation, Independent Harvesting Inc., Sugarland Harvesting Co., Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, Trucane Sugar Corporation, King Ranch Inc., and J&J AG Products Inc.

According to the lawsuit, the defendants farm sugarcane on approximately 400,000 acres in the areas south and southeast of Lake Okeechobee and around the towns of Belle Glade, South Bay, Pahokee, Clewiston and Moore Haven. They use a method of harvesting sugarcane that burns off the outer leaves prior to harvesting. The preharvest burns are done on 40- to 80-acre tracts of land at a time and are regulated by the Florida Forest Service.

Two of the plaintiffs live in Belle Glade; one lives in Clewiston. They claim they have been harmed by the smoke from the sugarcane burning.

In the court order, U.S. Southern District of Florida Judge Rodney Smith noted,d “There is nothing in the amended complaint showing that each of the plaintiffs has been harmed by all of the defendants … Unlike the plaintiffs in the cases cited by plaintiffs, who sued one or two defendants, plaintiffs here have sued virtually an entire industry involving what amounts to dozens of actual sugarcane growers. Additionally, the cases cited by plaintiff all involved waterways which have a unidirectional flow, unlike wind patterns, which change. There is nothing in the amended complaint alleging that plaintiffs have been exposed to smoke and ash from all of these dozens of sugarcane producers.”

The judge’s ruling also states, “Defendants maintain that sugarcane burning falls squarely within the Right to Farm Act: it is a generally accepted agricultural management practice, as evidenced by the fact that it is statutorily permitted and regulated by the Florida Forest Service, and there are no allegations that preharvest burning was a nuisance to anyone at the time these farm operations commenced.”

The order also references the “air quality in Florida is monitored and regulated by FDEP (Florida Department of Environmental Protection) which sets standards for air quality.”

U.S. Sugar Senior Director for Corporate Communications and Public Affairs Judy Sanchez responded Friday: “We appreciate the judge’s careful consideration of the arguments by the parties, as set out in the court’s detailed order.

“As responsible American farmers and members of this community, we stand by our harvesting practices, which are safe, accepted and regulated by the Florida Forest Service. Beyond any of these rulings and regulations, the people of U.S. Sugar live in these Glades communities and raise our families here — our children and grandchildren — in the neighborhoods, schools and churches throughout these small, close-knit farming towns. The health, safety and jobs of our communities all are vitally important to U.S. Sugar.”

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