Lawsuit alleges sugar cane burning harms air quality

MIAMI — The Hagens Berman and Berman Law Group filed a second amended class-action lawsuit on June 22, alleging that major sugarcane growers in southern Florida “continue to burn vast acreages of sugarcane, knowingly inundating residents of Belle Glade, Canal Point, Clewiston, Indiantown, Moore Haven, Pahokee and South Bay with toxic smoke and blanketing their homes and cars with soot and cane residue.” The lawsuit alleges the smoke from cane burning is detrimental to the air quality in those residential areas.

In May, a United States district judge dismissed the first amended complaint by plaintiffs who claimed they were injured by the smoke from sugarcane burning.

“The second amended complaint, like the first two complaints in this case, makes baseless claims that only prolong this litigation designed to attack the hard-working people in the Glades communities who have lived, worked and raised their families in farming here for generations,” stated Judy Sanchez, senior director of corporate communication and public affairs for U.S. Sugar.

The second amended complaint, filed on June 22 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, claims that in Palm Beach County alone, defendants burned approximately 3.2 million acres of sugarcane field over the course of over 80,000 individual burn events between 2009 and 2019. The lawsuit alleges that “the smoke from the millions of acres of burning sugarcane exposes residents to a wide range of pollutants, including particulate matter, dioxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, ammonia, elemental carbon and organic carbon.”

The lawsuit alleges current state regulations deny burn permits to sugarcane growers if the Florida Forest Service projects that the winds will blow smoke and ash plumes toward the more affluent eastern Palm Beach County and eastern Martin County communities near the coast, but offers no such protection to the poorer communities. Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman, claimed “poorer, predominantly nonwhite communities in western Palm Beach County, western Martin County, Hendry County and Glades County do not receive the same environmental protections as others.”

U.S. Sugar disputes the allegations.

“As American farmers and long-term stewards of our community, the people of U.S. Sugar stand by our safe harvesting practices which are carefully regulated and permitted by Florida’s widely acclaimed, prescribed burn program,” said Mrs. Sanchez.

“Sugarcane growers rely on actual air quality data collected by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to confirm that our farming practices are safe for all of us who live in the Glades communities — while the claims and data used by the plaintiffs’ attorneys are both inconsistent and misleading,” she said.

“The fact is that our Glades communities enjoy some of the best air quality in all of Florida, and we will continue to defend our communities, our families and our future from these meritless claims,” she said.

In the May ruling on the original case, U.S. Southern District of Florida Judge Rodney Smith stated, “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 judge’s order also referenced the “air quality in Florida is monitored and regulated by FDEP (Florida Department of Environmental Protection) which sets standards for air quality.”

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.

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