Autumn’s in the air.
And in the Glades communities, so is toxic smoke and “black snow.”
The sugar industry’s burn season began Oct. 1 and runs through May. During that time some 400,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area will be put to the torch as growers burn off the leaves and tops of the plants, leaving only the sugar-bearing stalk to be harvested.
For the industry, it’s simple and economical. For the residents of the Glades, it’s monstrous.
During burn season, flames can shoot 30 to 40 feet in the air, with plumes of smoke visible from space. State law prohibits burning when the winds might blow the smoke and soot toward the wealthy coastal communities east of the fields.
Residents of the Glades enjoy no such protections.
The smoke and the ash, known as “black snow,” blankets Glades communities. Schools and parents keep kids indoors. Yet state health authorities and the sugar industry itself insist the air is safe to breathe.
Meanwhile, some South Florida members of Congress have merely called for additional studies and monitoring of the pollution that’s choking families. “Where are their calls for an end to this outdated, toxic and racist practice?” asked Robert Mitchell, a resident of Belle Glade, an advocate with the Stop the Burn-Go Green Campaign, and a member of the Friends of the Everglades Board of Directors.
“We need to breathe and we need to breathe now — and breathe clean air,” Mitchell said.
But that won’t be happening this year. Instead, the burning — and the health problems attributed to it — will continue.
New research on the increasing prevalence of wildfire smoke across the United States found parts of Palm Beach, Hendry, Glades and Okeechobee counties recorded the worst smoke days in the United States — even higher than wildfire-prone California, according to an analysis of 10 years of data from National Public Radio and Stanford University’s Environmental Change and Human Outcomes Lab.
Recent reporting by the Palm Beach Post and Pro Publica “found that hospital and emergency room visits for breathing problems among Belle Glade patients spiked during cane-burning season.”
And the federal Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged long-term exposure to particulate matter can lead to heart attacks, even premature death.
In the era of COVID-19, the smoke and ash put the Glades communities at even greater risk of respiratory problems. The regions most at risk are largely lower-income communities of color. The coastal communities protected from the smoke and ash are predominantly wealthy and white.
This is environmental racism at its worst.
The annual burns are permitted by the Florida Forest Service, under the authority of Nikki Fried, Commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. We’ve asked Commissioner Fried to expand protections for Glades residents and move toward an eventual ban of pre-harvest sugarcane burning.
Unfortunately, she and her department have failed to take these extra, necessary steps.
We continue to advocate for an established 27-30 mile burn-ban buffer to guarantee residents in communities south of Lake Okeechobee are afforded the same defense against the dark plumes of toxic smoke as their wealthier neighbors, until such a time that pre-harvest burning is banned entirely.
And it must be banned entirely.
Other sugar-growing nations, recognizing the risk, have moved toward “green harvesting” — which not only curtails pollution, but provides good-paying jobs as well. But our domestic sugar industry — led by Big Sugar — continues to resist, claiming the air in the Glades region is just fine, that no one need worry the smoke has anything to do with their choking children, or elderly relatives struggling to breathe.
Adding insult to injury, the Florida Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis gave Big Sugar a big gift last year, when they rewrote state law to protect growers from lawsuits over “particle emissions” from burning. Friends of the Everglades is calling on lawmakers to repeal that provision during the upcoming 2022 session, and state Rep. Anna Eskamani has agreed to champion that effort.
It’s long past time for the state of Florida to step up and do the right thing by putting out these fires — for good.