Sugarcane burning pits corporations against environmentalists over health concerns for years; Belle Glade residents say not an issue

By Uriah Williams

Is the billowing black smoke from sugarcane burning causing health problems for residents in nearby farming communities in Palm Beach County including Belle Glade and Pahokee, and Hendry County?

Environmentalists believe so and for decades have been taking on the big sugarcane corporations in their efforts to ease operation but to no avail.

The sugar cane corporations have been burning sugarcane for almost 100 years to reduce the amount of leafy extraneous material, including stalk tops, delivered with the cane to the factories for processing.

But a coalition of environmental groups led by the Sierra Club suggested the chemicals are allegedly causing health problems sending residents panicking for their lives.

The dispute between the sugarcane corporations including Florida Crystals and Trucane Sugar Corporation and the environmental groups escalated into a series of legal battles.

Lavita Holmes, former Commissioner of Agriculture, Nikki Fried and former Clewiston Commissioner, Janet Taylor (mother), waiting to address former Minority Leader Driskell.

According to Levita Holmes, executive director of Glade Lives Matter, the latest lawsuit to ban sugarcane burning was dismissed due to lack of medical proof the burning directly caused health problems for residents living in the nearby communities.

“They didn’t have any proof that people’s health is an issue,” she said.

The sugarcane companies pushed back, saying pre-harvest burns are not linked to health issues, and instead are essential to sugarcane harvest in South Florida including increasing safety, alleviating vehicle traffic and promoting health plant regrowth for subsequent crops.

Most of the residents from Belle Glade, Pahokee and other farming areas in both counties, some who have lived in the communities for more than 50 years, agreed, saying the burning doesn’t impact their or their family members’ health.

Lavita at March 2023 Legislative Session Students Scholarship recipients of Glades Lives Matter.

Some say otherwise including a study which suggests pre-harvest burns can cause upper respiratory problems and even lung cancer.

But residents are the casualties in the ongoing war between the environmentalists and sugarcane corporations.

Some residents formed Glade Lives Matter to speak up for themselves after the environmentalists spoke on their behalf but all for the wrong reasons.

Holmes, whose mother founded the group,  said she grew up in Belle Glade and worked in the sugarcane field when she was a little girl and has never felt any symptoms linked to sugarcane burning.

“I have worked in this community, surrounded by Sugarcane fields, all my life and have never felt any symptoms or had any ill health effects related to sugarcane burning,” said Holmes.

“There are no health issues for me or my family,” she said. “I have been working with my mom in the sugarcane fields for years and we never experienced any health problems.”

Holmes said in the latest lawsuit, the environmentalists used residents’ health as a ploy to win the case, even using kids wearing masks during their public protests to give people the impression the burning is causing bad quality air that’s impacting their health.

But Holmes said a judge dismissed the lawsuit due to lack of evidence.

It was a victory for the sugarcane companies and residents who indicated the environmentalists have a hidden agenda in their ongoing fight against the corporations.

Holmes believes the environmentalist groups want the agricultural land for themselves to develop the area into an eco-tourism site.

She said if that’s the case, such a plan could displace residents and put a lot of farmers out of work to make way for the eco-tourism site.

“They make no contribution to the communities, no resources are sent here,” Holmes said. “They don’t even live here, so how would they know if the burning is a health issue?”

The sugarcane companies indicated that stopping pre-harvest burning would cost jobs.

Sugar-cane farming provides most of the income for residents and migrant farmworkers in Palm Beach County.

About 70 percent of Florida’s commercial sugarcane acreage is in Palm Beach County, strengthening the labor force for growing sugar cane and vegetables.

Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson and Pahokee Mayor Keith W. Babb Jr. making an impact as part of a team of Mayors, community leaders at the State Capital fighting for the local jobs, citizens’ rights and advocating for sustainable growth and economic development for the Glades communities.

Belle Glade Mayor Steven Wilson, who was born in the city and moved back in 1977, said families have raised their children there for years and he hasn’t heard about any health-related issues in connection with the burning.

“They have been burning sugarcane for close to 100 years, and do you believe people would raise their family here and put them in harm’s way?” asked Wilson. “For people living here for many, many years and to say the air quality is not good, that’s so crazy.”

Wilson, 65, said over the years, Belle Glade and Pahokee have produced some of the best athletes who went on to play in the NFL.

He said if the air quality in the communities was an issue, the pro athletes wouldn’t be in tip top shape or not playing in the NFL due to health issues.

“The pro athletes who came from here never complained about the air,” Wilson said. “More pro football players grew up in Pahokee and do you think these guys would be in top shape to be on the level they are?”

Wilson also heard rumors about a clandestine effort to take over the farming land by the environmentalists.

“We heard about a land grab,” he said. “Why do people continue to go after the industry when we take great pride in feeding America? We are the ones who feed America.”

Joaquin Almazan, City Vice-Mayor

Belle Glade Commissioner Joaquin Almazan, who lived in the community for 54 years and also raised his family there, said outsiders are trying to raise an issue that doesn’t exist.

He said sugarcane burning is overseen by state officials and if residents’ lives were at stake, the operations would be shut down.

“Honestly, it is not an issue,” he said. “You have outside groups trying to make an issue that people are dying here. If that’s the case, we would have the largest cemetery in the world. People in Belle Glade would be walking around with oxygen tanks if it was an issue.”

Based on a 2019 report by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, farming communities enjoy some of the best air quality in the state of Florida, with Palm Beach and Hendry Counties ranking among the top of all of Florida’s 67 counties.

The independent air quality report suggests pre-harvest sugarcane burning doesn’t affect the air quality in those counties.

Hendry and Palm Beach County public health data shows there wasn’t an increase in emergency room visits for respiratory complications during the sugarcane harvest season but residents in Belle Glade and other regions did experience normal health issues such as allergies associated with a change in the seasons.

Burning cane fields in Belle Glade

However, according to a 2022 nation study by the University of Florida’s Thomson Earth Systems Institute, sugarcane burning produces what nearby communities refer to as “black smoke” which is particulate matter that, when inhaled, can lead to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and lung cancer.

It can also cause chronic conditions like asthma to worsen.

Sugarcane fires are known to release polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), some of which are thought to be carcinogenic, or cancer-causing. “We’ve  seen no proof that this is proving or true and the suggestion may cause unwarranted fear in our community,” said Holmes.

People living near cane fields in Florida are predominantly lower-income Black and Hispanic communities, the study says.

According to the Palm Beach Post, in November of 2022, about 50 residents from Belle Glade and Pahokee joined environmentalists during a rally to protest the pre-harvest burning across the street from Florida Crystals in Belle Glade.

Norman Jason, who has lived in Belle Glade for 16 years, said the smoke is causing his upper respiratory problems to the point where he now wears a mask when he’s doing yard work and heading to his car.

“The smoke is hurting us,” he said.

STOP THE BURN

Steve Messam, a Stop the Burn campaign activist who lives in Palm Beach County, said the burning is an issue but predominantly Black areas are impacted more than White neighborhoods.

He said since the Florida Department of Agriculture banned growers from burning years ago when winds blow in the direction of White communities such as Wellington and Royal Palm Beach following a flood of complaints.

It’s a different story with the Black city of Belle Glade, which is a low income area.

“The sugar industry’s always asking where’s the data,” Messam said. “The people in Wellington didn’t provide one shred of data.” He added, “But when the wind is blowing west on Black and Brown people, it’s burn, baby, burn.”

Repeated attempts to reach the Sierra Club were unsuccessful.

According to its website, the Sierra Club debuted in 1971 and calls itself as the nation’s leader in environmental protection and litigation.

The organization claims to have stopped more than 175 new coal plants from being built, and secured the announced retirements of 300 plus existing, heavily polluting plants, and also beat back numerous fossil fuel pipelines, gas power plants and other climate-disrupting fossil fuel projects.

 

About Carma Henry 22108 Articles
Carma Lynn Henry Westside Gazette Newspaper 545 N.W. 7th Terrace, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33311 Office: (954) 525-1489 Fax: (954) 525-1861

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