Lawsuit seeks to stop sugarcane burning

BOCA RATON — The Berman Law Group, a law firm based in Boca Raton, held a press conference on June 4 announcing that it has filed a federal class-action lawsuit against U.S. Sugar Corporation, Florida Crystals Corporation and nine other defendants on behalf of residents in Belle Glade, Pahokee, South Bay and surrounding communities who they claim have been negatively impacted by sugarcane burns.

The lawsuit seeks an end to the burns, recovery of economic damages and health monitoring for residents.

When asked why the lawsuit was just now being filed after decades of burning, Berman Law’s director of government relations and former state legislator Joseph Abruzzo said complaints from residents of a Boca Raton condominium recently brought the issue to legislators’ attention.

“The wind shifted during a burn,” explained Mr. Abruzzo during the press conference, “and it hit Century Village in Boca Raton. Many residents there were very upset. So that’s when it first started to come to life with us learning about it to a degree. When I exited the legislature in November and came to this firm, they were already on to it. Should it have been stopped years ago? Absolutely. But today is the day to bring attention to it.”

Mr. Abruzzo said the burns conducted by sugar companies degrade air quality in the area. He pointed to data collected by the Florida Department of Health that show there were 657 hospitalizations for asthma in Palm Beach County for every 100,000 residents. Linking that number to sugarcane burning might prove tricky, however. That rate makes Palm Beach County 38th out of the 67 counties in Florida in asthma hospitalizations.
According to the data collected by the Florida Department of Health, the worst counties for asthma hospitalizations are all mostly located in North Florida, far away from annual sugarcane burning.

Out of the top 10 worst counties for asthma hospitalizations, eight are located near the Panhandle, with only two, Osceola and Polk, in Central Florida. The nearest county in the top 10, Osceola, is located over 100 miles north of the sugarcane fields in the Glades.

Lead attorney Zachary West said during the press conference that the firm is looking to collect evidence through discovery in the pre-trial phase of the lawsuit to back up the allegations made in the complaint.

The Florida Forest Service currently regulates when the sugar industry can and cannot burn, and conditions such as wind direction play a crucial role in whether they’re able to obtain permits to burn.

U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said the company is currently reviewing the complaint filed by Berman Law Group.

“We are American farmers and stand behind the safety and integrity of our farming practices, which are highly regulated and legally permitted on a daily basis by the government,” said Mrs. Sanchez. “Beyond that, we 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.

“Decades of independent air quality monitoring and data show that our communities, along with our counties of Palm Beach, Hendry and Glades, have some of the best air quality in the entire state, better than the state average, year after year,” concluded Mrs. Sanchez in her statement following the complaint. “While seeming to be done on behalf of our communities, this lawsuit actually attacks the very farming that supports all the jobs in our communities. The health, safety and jobs of our communities all are vitally important to U.S. Sugar.”

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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