For the first time in nearly a decade, Florida regulators have upgraded their air-monitoring system in the state's sugar-growing region, where farmers burn crops to harvest more than half the nation's cane sugar.
The move follows an investigation by The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica that found shortcomings in the way authorities police air pollution in Florida's heartland, including their use of an air monitor that was unfit to enforce the Clean Air Act, the landmark law aimed at protecting the public from harmful pollutants.
For years, residents have complained that cane burning sends smoke and ash into their communities and harms their health. But, as the news organizations reported in July, state environmental and health officials kept running the monitor in Belle Glade, despite flagging problems in 2013.
Federal law allowed this, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the state could continue using the equipment to track the Air Quality Index, a public information tool that communicates whether the air is good, unhealthy or hazardous. But the decision to stick with the old monitor meant officials couldn't use it to measure violations of the more stringent Clean Air Act or hold polluters accountable for potential infractions across 400,000 acres of cane fields.
For about nine months, since The Post and ProPublica started asking questions about the monitor, officials had said they would replace it "in the future," "later in 2021" and, more recently, "later in the near future." Then, last month, the Palm Beach County Department of Health upgraded the Belle Glade monitor with one that's fit to enforce federal pollution standards. Alexandra Kuchta, a spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the upgrade was delayed because officials had "to make physical modifications to the shelter so that the new monitoring equipment would fit."
The department, she said, is also speaking with the EPA about expanding air monitoring in the state. Next year, the EPA plans to award $20 million in competitive grants to local, state and tribal governments to help better monitor "pollutants of greatest concern in communities with environmental and health outcome disparities stemming from pollution and the COVID-19 pandemic."
The practice of cane burning disproportionately affects the Glades, a patchwork of mostly Black and Hispanic communities amid the cane fields. The smoke rarely reaches the wealthier, whiter communities to the east, because burning is banned when the wind blows in that direction. Hospitalization data also suggests health disparities. The news organizations found that hospital and emergency room visits for breathing problems among Belle Glade patients spiked during the cane-burning season, though our analysis couldn't speak to the ultimate cause.
The seasonal difference in Belle Glade was bigger than changes in other similar populations where burning wasn't present.
Of chief concern to public health experts is particulate matter, an inhalable mixture of pollutants and debris tied to heart and lung disease. According to the EPA, Palm Beach County emits more particulate matter from agricultural fires than any other county nationwide.
Democrats in the state Legislature are not relying on state regulators, who, for years, have said the air is healthy to breathe. In December, Rep. Anna Eskamani and Sen. Gary Farmer introduced legislation to empower residents by rolling back a new law that protects farmers from lawsuits over air pollution. Under changes passed by the Legislature last April, the state's Right to Farm Act now includes "particle emissions" in a list of protected farming activities. The term is interchangeable with particulate matter, a known byproduct of sugar cane burning. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law. The new bill would strike that language, though its prospects are uncertain in a Republican-dominated Legislature.
"It's a health hazard, an environmental justice issue and also allows the sugar industry to operate without consequences," Eskamani said, referring to the previous legislative changes. "That's not appropriate, no one else can do that. It doesn't make sense that we create a different set of rules just because it's a powerful industry."
U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, the region's two largest sugar companies, did not respond to requests for comment. They have said they are committed to operating safely in the Glades and have denied that cane burning is responsible for residents' health problems.
Meanwhile, the issue is playing out in Florida's gubernatorial race, where voters will cast ballots next year. Asked about ProPublica's reporting, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, a Democrat who served as Florida governor from 2007 to 2011 and who is running for the post again, pledged to improve air monitoring in the Glades while "pushing for a shift away from burning and towards a cleaner harvesting process, one that would create more jobs for local residents."
The U.S. is an outlier among the world's top sugar-producing countries. Brazil, India and Thailand have all moved to end or sharply limit cane burning, citing environmental and public health problems from the practice.
"I recognize the harm done to communities in the Glades, mostly Black and Hispanic Floridians," Crist said. "We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the air pollution and health hazards this community is experiencing."
He blasted the Legislature for its past efforts to protect industry. "When wealthy communities to the east complain about burning, they get action. But when people in the Glades raise concerns, Tallahassee looks the other way. And when the Florida Legislature acts, it seems to make things worse," Crist said. As governor in 2008, he negotiated with U.S. Sugar to buy land from the company to help restore the Everglades — a deal that many environmentalists praised at the time, though it was drastically downsized amid a sour economy. Others criticized it as a kind of bailout for the company.
DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did state Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat who is also running for governor.
Crist said he would support Eskamani's bill and noted that the agriculture commissioner, who oversees the sugar industry, can "stop allowing permits for burning." The post is currently held by Nikki Fried, one of his Democratic opponents in the gubernatorial primary. She did not return requests for comment, but she has previously highlighted her efforts to make changes to the state's sugar cane burning program. In 2019, she placed restrictions on burning, such as denying permits when the air quality is poor, aiming to minimize the impact of smoke.
"Keeping Florida's residents, communities, and environment safe is my top priority," she said in a previous statement.
An analysis by The Post and ProPublica found that the department did deny more permits in the 2020-21 harvest season than it had on average in the last five seasons, but the overall number of burns was roughly the same.
Fried has also said she supports developing alternative harvesting methods that don't involve burning, but her office said none "have yet emerged as an environmentally and economically viable option."
The harvest season started recently, and some Glades residents say the changes to the burn program have done little. Thelma Freeman keeps her grandchildren inside when she sees what locals call "black snow," the ash that falls from cane burning. In a recent interview, she said the pollution is as bad as ever.
"It's never better," she said.
Lulu Ramadan and Maya Miller contributed reporting.