The Burning Problem

Environmental Injustice

Discriminatory sugarcane burning regulations overseen by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and enforced by the Florida Forestry Service are based on wind direction and speed. The rules are written to protect the more affluent communities of eastern Palm Beach and Martin counties; permits will be denied if pollution and ashfall from sugarcane burning are projected to impact them. Meanwhile burn permits are approved when winds blow smoke and ash toward the lower income rural communities in and around the Everglades Agricultural Area. This leads the predominantly African-American and Hispanic communities in western Palm Beach County, which are surrounded by over 75 percent of the total sugarcane acreage in Florida, to disproportionately bear the negative impacts of Big Sugar’s outdated harvesting practices.

Go to the Resources for links to research articles on environmental injustice.

Economics

During the harvest season, residents in and around the EAA have to deal with persistent ash fall from pre-harvest sugar field burning; they call it “black snow.” This leaves a layer of dirty soot on property throughout the impacted regions over the course of the six to eight month harvest season. Residents, business owners, and visitors to the area have to foot the bill to clean the soot off their homes, cars, and clothes. Homeowners have to regularly change their air conditioning filters to keep up with the build up of soot. Carpets, ceiling fans, outdoor furniture — literally everything that is within the reach of the ashfall — must be cleaned more often and more deeply by those who live and work there. The cost of this is borne not only by individual residents but the local economy as a whole.

The communities of western Palm Beach County, including Belle Glade, South Bay and Pahokee, have some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in Florida. These Communities are also the most negatively impacted by the massive amounts of smoke and ashfall produced annually by pre-harvest sugar field burning. The pollution and clean up costs associated with black snow for up to 8 months of the year provides a major dis-incentive for outside investment and new businesses to open up in the Glades communities. The alternative of Green Harvesting sugarcane along with the new economic opportunities it brings provides a means for a new era of economic growth for the Glades communities and overall region impacted by sugarcane burning.

In 2020, Belle Glade was ranked Florida’s poorest overall city with Pahokee ranked second, and South Bay in a list Florida’s top 10 poorest cities based off of statewide poverty, median household income, and unemployment rates: https://www.roadsnacks.net/poorest-places-in-florida
Communities of Western Palm Beach County have a combined unemployment rate of 17.29% (January 2020): https://lakeokeechobeenews.com/community-news/county-agencies-making-dent-in-glades-unemployment

The harvest season also coincides with some of the best months of the year to enjoy the outdoors in Florida. Residents living in and around the EAA, especially those with respiratory issues, often have to remain indoors on days when pre-harvest burning takes place.

Toxic Air Pollution

Every year during the annual 6-8 month harvest season, residents living in and around the Everglades Agricultural Area are exposed to toxic air pollution on a near daily basis. This large scale open opening burning emits a wide variety of toxic pollutants including:

• Particulate Matter including (PM 2.5 ) (PM 10)
• Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH)
• Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) such as
• Benzene
• Carbonyls such as Formaldehyde
• GreenHouse Gasses such as Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Carbon Monoxide (CO) Nitrogen Oxide (NOX)
• Dioxins such as polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and furans (PCDD/PCDFs)

Research indicates exposure to sugarcane burning emissions are linked to the following health problems:

• Respiratory ailments like, asthma, bronchitis, and COPD
• Cancer
• Kidney disease
• Cardiac disease
• Higher rates of preterm births, low birth weights, and infant mortality rates among pregnant mothers

The research shows both children and the elderly living closest to the sugarcane fields are the most vulnerable to the negative health impacts. Residents suffering from recurrent respiratory ailments have their symptoms exacerbated during the harvest season and many are told by their doctors that the best long term solution is for them to move to a region with better year-round air quality. This is not something many impacted residents have the resources or desire to do, nor should they have to.


“It’s sad when you go to the doctor and they ask you where you live and you say Belle Glade and they tell you to move. Everybody is not fortunate enough to just pick up and move. My family is here and it is so important that they [the sugar industry] be better neighbors.”


“As a leader and elected official of the city of South Bay I hear stories all the time, I see the stories. As a local business owner of a dance studio I see some of my kids have to miss dance because they are on breathing machines. And the asthma arises during this time. The asthma is so bad during the burning season that kids have to miss dance class and miss doing what they love and that’s sad.”

– Resident and former Mayor of the City of South Bay Shanique Scott


“It’s not disputed,” Mnatzaganian said of the health impacts of pre-harvest sugarcane burns. “The only thing that is disputed is: is it happening in your community? And I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be happening in [the Glades] community.”

– Dr. Christina Mnatzganian, author of Association between sugar cane burning and acute respiratory illness on the island of Maui


The 2008 Rosenwald Elementary School evacuation is an example of the threat posed by pre-harvest burning on nearby communities. In February of that year, six students from Rosenwald Elementary School in the city of South Bay were sent to the hospital and another nine were treated on sight after smoke from a nearby sugarcane burn seeped through vents and filled the school. The new school building constructed in 2015 was not the answer needed to protect its students; Green Harvesting is the only real solution toward protecting both students and the Glades communities as a whole from toxic sugarcane burning pollution.

Go to Resources for links to research on health and air quality.

Water, Wildlife, & Climate

Pre-harvest sugarfield burning contributes to the following:

• Pollution of nearby waterways through the process of atmospheric deposition
• Acid rain
• Increased soil oxidation and erosion that contributes to increased nutrient pollution run off into surrounding waterways
• Increased soil subsidence
• Increased greenhouse gas emissions
• Wildlife caught in flames
• Depletion of soil nutrients and microbial life requiring the use of more chemical fertilizers

Go to Resources for links to research on environmental impacts.

UF IFAS Subsidence Post

Big Sugar vs. Small Farmers

There are many hardworking small and independent sugarcane farmers doing the best they can in Florida. However such farmers work within a system that is dictated by the sugar mill owners they sell their sugar to. For example most independent farmers do not own their own mechanical harvesters so they contract out harvesting to mill owners like US Sugar, Florida Crystals or the Sugarcane Growers Co-op collectively referred to as “Big Sugar,” leaving them with little to no control over how their sugarcane is harvested. Florida mill owners do not practice cane dry cleaning (practiced under many green harvesting regimes) to remove dirt and trash from sugar-bearing cane billets before they are sent to the mill. This makes green harvested sugarcane less desirable because added trash goes in with the billets that can reduce milling efficiency. This results in farmers having their pay reduced by the weight of the sugarcane trash brought to the sugar mill with their cane billets.

The true benefits from transitioning away from field burning to green harvesting can take years before higher yields and reduced chemical fertilizer and herbicide cost can be achieved. Not many small farmers can afford to bear the costs of transitioning their practices without outside financial support. This is why the transition to green harvesting has to be from the top down, driven by investment from US Sugar, Florida Crystals, and the Sugarcane Growers Co-op. The costs of that transition should not be borne by small farmers who are the least able to bear it.

Burning / Black Snow Videos

Sugarcane burning in a South Bay Neighborhood

Sugarcane burn over Main Street in Belle Glade


Sugarcane burn up close part 1

Sugarcane burn up close part 2


Weather report referencing smoke from sugarcane fields

Radar imaging of sugarcane burns in the Glades


Black Snow in Belle Glade part 1

Black Snow in Belle Glade part 2