Series: Black Snow
Big Sugar’s Burning Problem
The Glades is an area of Florida just south of Lake Okeechobee, the large body of water in the center of the state you can easily spot on a map. As a Floridian, I probably should have known that this area produces more than half of America’s cane sugar, but I only learned that recently while reading our stellar Local Reporting Network investigation into how air pollution from the area’s sugar industry poses health risks for residents who live there. Reporter Lulu Ramadan of The Palm Beach Post worked with ProPublica engagement reporter Maya Miller and news applications developer Ash Ngu to shed light on how sugar cane companies set fire to dozens of cane fields across western Palm Beach County. The smoke from setting the crop ablaze — a harvesting method that saves sugar companies money — affects the day-to-day lives of people living in the Glades.
I encourage you to read the entire story, but I want to highlight the deep level of community engagement and involvement of Glades residents in the reporting. Working closely with residents was particularly complicated for this investigation because many of the same people who are affected by the seasonal burns also benefit from the industry’s role as one of the biggest employers in the region. To reach residents, reporters sent letters to public school teachers and custodians across the area; they knocked on doors, attended a virtual church service, canvassed food distribution sites, distributed flyers to local businesses and organizations, and reached out to doctors and nurses in the area.
While interviews provided a trove of information about people’s experiences, reporters also wanted to quantify data about the quality of the air residents breathed. The problem was there wasn’t much information to be had: While the area has one air monitor, it wasn’t producing the highest quality measurements and had been malfunctioning as far back as eight years ago, as their reporting showed.
To collect reliable data, ProPublica and The Palm Beach Post collaborated with residents to set up their own air monitors. For four months, these PurpleAir sensors collected data. When the sensors detected a spike in pollution, reporters used a text bot to interview residents in real time about what they were experiencing.
The result of these efforts is a stunning piece of multimedia journalism. To accompany the story, here’s a bit more insight from our reporting team. Parts of our interview were edited for clarity.
You all have slightly different roles: Lulu, you’re a locally based reporter in Florida; Maya, you’re a reporter who specializes in community engagement; Ash, you’re a reporter who specializes in data visuals. How did your various types of expertise shape your approaches to this project?
Lulu: We knew early on that we wanted to talk to a lot of people in this community. The Glades is a segment of our county that we don’t cover as a newspaper as often as we should. And so there was a lot of trust building that had to happen with sources. We didn’t want them to feel like we were swooping in. We started by coming up with ideas on engagement, and how to reach people who would help us fill in the gaps on what the experience was like living in the community where you’re seeing the smoke and ash from cane burns.
Maya: One of the things that was really interesting is that this issue has been written about before and is politicized in the community. People have gotten mailers from both sugar companies and the Sierra Club, you know, saying kind of charged things about what burning is like. We really wanted to break through that and just talk to people who weren’t involved in that fight, and people just living there day to day. From the outset, we saw people living in the community as experts in their own right. So, we talked to air quality experts, but also the people living there, who know the conditions better than anyone.
Ash: For me, it was mostly about, what can we say with what the sensors are reporting? And [it’s] sort of a high-pressure question, because we had these sensors out there, and as I learned more and more about them, [I learned] they are totally useful in certain circumstances, and also they have some asterisks that we need to account for. And so I spent a lot of time just reading about the PurpleAirs in the beginning, just to understand what do they even do?
You mentioned that while out in the community, you’d often start conversations with residents by asking the question, “Do you own a nebulizer or asthma inhaler?” Why?
Lulu: We wanted to learn about people’s health experiences. And we did find really quickly that when we started to ask people, “Do you know anybody who has asthma? Or do you have asthma? Do you own a nebulizer?” that without exception, every neighborhood we did this in, at least one person owned a nebulizer or asthma inhaler, and in most of those cases they allowed us to photograph it and talk to them about it.
We use that as an entryway. And then we’d tell them we’re trying to understand what the public health situations are like. [We’d ask], “Why do you need your nebulizer and asthma inhaler?” and they start to open up and mention the smoke, and then we would start asking them about what it’s like navigating the sugar cane burning when you have asthma. How often do you need your nebulizers? That was an example, to me, about trust building. When we were clear about just trying to understand underlying health, [community members] opened up quite a bit and a lot of them ended up being on-record sources who [we] photographed.
So, there’s the qualitative data aspect of collecting information about people’s lived experiences, and there’s quantitative data that comes from the citizen science aspect of air monitors. Can you talk a bit more about how both methods informed your reporting?
Ash: On a quantitative basis, we have real-time pollution data from two sensors. Every two minutes, [the sensors] are reporting how much of PM2.5, which is a very, very small, inhalable particle that does harmful things to your health, is in the air. And we have that [data] across four months of the burn season. And so what the data shows is these, what we call spikes — which our experts say strongly suggest a link to cane sugar burns — oftentimes in the morning and afternoon, when sugar cane burns are happening.
Maya: One of the big questions we were trying to answer from the outset was: Residents are saying the air quality is harming their health, and yet the [EPA-approved air] monitor in this area and the industries and the state officials are saying the air quality is clean. How do you reconcile what’s really going on here? And so we looked at the broader EPA monitoring system, and identified gaps in it that, actually, the Government Accountability Office had also identified recently: that rural areas don’t really have a lot of [air] monitoring, and that short spikes in pollution are often missed by longer-term averages. We wanted to find a way to harness all of what the residents were concerned about, let them speak for themselves, and get out of the way.
Right ... as the reporting shows, nobody has truly been able to answer the question of whether the air in the Glades is safe. How has reporting this story changed the way you think about what “safe” means?
Lulu: I think it’s something that even government officials are still tackling, really. For example, under the Trump administration the EPA committee had made the decision that the current particulate matter standards were sufficient for protecting public health. But the EPA, under the Biden administration, recently said they’re going to revisit that decision. There’s this complete lack of data that has afforded [lawmakers and sugar companies] protection against criticism.
Maya: One of the people we met through engagement is Thelma Freeman and her two grandsons. During the burn season, she feels like she has to keep her sons indoors. And I think my conception of the area’s safety is informed by what residents told us and how they live their lives.
Ash: I think that “safe” is what wealthy people expect and experience in their everyday environment. People who have means are able to experience a level of physical health and mental health in some cases that far surpasses people who don’t have means, and that’s because they live in safe environments for the most part.