Anticipating litigation from environmental groups, sugar growers held a preemptive news conference Wednesday to defend the annual pre-harvest burning of sugarcane fields around the Everglades.
“We believe that this attack is simply another of their efforts to put the sugar farming industry out of business in Florida,” Judy Sanchez, senior director of corporate communications and public affairs for U.S. Sugar Corp., said in a conference call with reporters. “And we’re prepared to defend this action as we have defended every other attack that they have made on our business.”
But environmentalists say the burns and resulting pollution likely are causing an underreported health crisis.
Frank Jackalone, staff director for Sierra Club Florida, said sugar growers need to be responsible for the environment. He said they had “hit the panic button” in holding Wednesday’s news conference.
“We are not, through this effort in any way, trying to take any sugar farm land out of production,” Jackalone said during a separate call with reporters. “We’re trying to help rural communities by making them healthier places to live.”
David Guest, managing attorney for the environmental-advocacy law firm Earthjustice, said an administrative complaint may be filed in about a month with the Environmental Protection Agency about burns involving U.S. Sugar, and a lawsuit could be ready in several months.
Fire is used to burn away leafy portions around sugarcane stalks, which are filled with water and don’t burn. The burns, regulated by the Florida Forest Service, are intended to make it easier for harvest machines to cut down and collect the stalks. The burns are conducted on 40- to 80-acre tracts at a time.
The industry expects to produce 16.67 million tons of sugarcane and more than 2 million tons of sugar during the upcoming harvest season.
Critics say smoke from the fires is filled with chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde and that “Big Sugar” is trying to downplay the pollution caused by the burning.
Guest said environmental groups have sought relief without success from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and have “limited optimism” as they await a response from the EPA on a separate complaint, filed in July, about the impact of an individual burn tied to Florida Crystals Corp.
Guest added that the impact from the burns should be included under federal Clean Air Act permits, which sugar refineries need to operate.
“Throughout the world, developing countries have stopped burning sugarcane because of its documented adverse health effects,” Guest said. “We should treat our citizens like it’s a developed country.”
Barbara Miedema, a spokeswoman for the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, said the state’s growers can’t use green alternative methods of harvesting desired by groups like the Sierra Club. Those methods are used in Australia and Brazil, where burning has been abandoned.
“We have close to freezing and sometimes freezing temperatures, so our soil is colder,” Miedema said. “It’s also mucky and moist. So that layer of vegetation that you’d be leaving on the soil from the leaf would create a blanket that would rot out the stubble which would become next year’s sugarcane crop.”
Guest dismissed the assertion that the local soil conditions necessitate the burns as a “a rural myth.”
In June, the Sierra Club publicly called on sugarcane growers to stop the decades-old harvesting practice because of the health concerns.
But Pat Dobbins, former Glades and Hendry County health director, said economic and social issues are responsible for health issues, such as asthma and diabetes, found in the region where smoke from the fires is most noticeable.
“While it is true that residents in rural and or underserved communities tend to have higher incidents of asthma, diabetes and other health issues, those are related to economic or social issues, such as obesity, unhealthy eating habits, lack of exercise or physical activity and the use of tobacco products,” said Dobbins, who was part of the sugar growers’ conference call. “The health of these communities is no different than the health of other communities of our size and socioeconomic backgrounds and values.”
Sugar growers have fended off other legal challenges to the burns.
In 1995, former Gov. Claude Kirk filed a lawsuit in Palm Beach County circuit court that claimed the industry created a public nuisance and altered the natural state of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades by burning sugarcane fields and introducing chemicals and toxins, which polluted the air and created a health hazard.
Six years later, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that while Kirk may have had a case, state law requires “an administrative agency with the experience and expertise to deal with the complex issues raised in the case” to handle the complaint, not the courts.
Those administrative agencies, outlined by the court, were the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Division of Forestry.
–Jim Turner, News Service of Florida