Investigating how regulators have allowed the sugar industry to burn crops at the expense of poor communities of color in Florida’s heartland.

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with The Palm Beach Post. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

Florida Democrats running to represent the state’s largest sugar-growing region in Congress say that state officials need to examine whether the industry’s harvesting practices are harming the health of residents in Florida’s heartland. The primary election, which will be held Tuesday, will likely decide the ultimate winner, given the heavily Democratic district.

The calls came in response to an investigation by The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica that found the Florida Department of Health ignored the recommendations of its own researchers to do such an assessment five years ago, despite mounting complaints from residents and multiple studies linking a practice known as cane burning to toxic pollution. Sugar companies are the largest employers in the region.

For about six months each year, from October through the following March, farmers burn sugar crops to rid the plants of their outer leaves, sending smoke and ash into the patchwork of largely Black and Hispanic communities known as the Glades. The companies say the practice is safe and heavily regulated by state agricultural and environmental officials. But, as the news organizations reported in August, state health researchers told their bosses in 2016 that the issue was ripe for more study, after finding significant levels of toxic pollutants known to cause cardiovascular disease, cancer and respiratory illness.

Seven of the 11 Democrats vying to replace the late Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Democrat who died in April, said the Florida health department should now follow through with a health-risk assessment, a tool that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments use to pinpoint toxins in the environment and protect vulnerable communities.

“The only reason we don’t know more about how sugar cane burning affects the health of Glades residents is because of the willful ignorance of public health officials in Florida’s health department,” said state Rep. Omari Hardy, a Democrat from West Palm Beach who is running in the special election for the vacant seat in the 20th Congressional District.

As The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica reported, local and state health officials have assessed the health risks of other pollutants in Palm Beach County at least 10 times since the 1980s, although they declined to do so in 2016 when it came to cane burning. The federal government provides funding and guidance to Florida and other states to do such assessments.

“I think those tests need to be conducted, and they really need to look at what’s occurring there — before, during and after the burning — and see how that’s affecting the people, and then move forward with some solutions,” said Barbara Sharief, another candidate and a Broward County commissioner who owns a pediatric home health care firm.

The Rev. Elvin Dowling, a former Hastings aide running in the race, said the potential health effects of cane burning “need to be investigated to the fullest extent possible.”

Four other Democratic candidates — Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness, state Rep. Bobby DuBose of Fort Lauderdale, former Palm Beach County Commissioner Priscilla Taylor, and retired Navy officer Phil Jackson of Palm Beach County — agreed, saying they supported more health research. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick — a health-care executive from Broward County who has raised the most money in the race, primarily through loaning $3.7 million to her own campaign — declined to comment, while the others in the field did not respond to requests.

Two Republicans are also running for their party’s nomination: Jason Mariner, CEO of a South Florida media company, and Greg Musselwhite, a welding inspector who ran against Hastings in 2020. The former did not respond to a request for comment and the latter did not answer questions, simply saying that the Post/ProPublica investigation had “lots of great information.”

State officials have been largely silent on the issue of cane burning while expanding protections for the sugar industry. In April, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law legislation that makes it harder for residents to sue farmers over air pollution. DeSantis and the Florida Department of Health did not respond to requests for comment for this story. The state-run Palm Beach County Health Department, where researchers first flagged concerns over the toxic pollution emitted by cane burning, issued a statement that did not address questions from the Post and ProPublica about whether the department should pursue a health risk assessment. “The Department of Health continues to work with the Department of Environmental Protection to ensure we are upholding the Clean Air Act,” the department said, noting its network of air monitors.

In the absence of a health risk assessment, The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica examined health trends in the Glades using state hospitalization data. The review found that hospital and emergency room visits for breathing problems among Belle Glade patients spiked during the cane-burning season — similar to a trend that local health officials first observed in clinics nearly 30 years ago. The seasonal difference in Belle Glade was bigger than changes in other similar populations where burning wasn’t present.

U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but both companies have denied that cane burning is responsible for residents’ health problems. They have also said they are committed to operating safely in the Glades. U.S. Sugar previously took issue with the news organizations’ health analysis, saying the underlying data lacked “critical factors” needed to draw any conclusions.

The harvesting practice has emerged as an issue in the congressional race because the region produces more than half the nation’s cane sugar. Hastings, the district’s previous representative, was co-chair of the House Sugar Caucus, an informal group of lawmakers who industry lobbyists once credited with “helping to maintain quotas that keep cheaper foreign sugar out of the U.S. market,” according to The Associated Press.

Sugar companies were among Hastings’ biggest supporters. In 2020, he received $22,000 from U.S. Sugar’s political action committee and affiliated individuals — the largest amount they gave to any congressional candidate that cycle, according to Open Secrets, which tracks political spending across the country. His second-largest source of contributions: individuals affiliated with Fanjul Corp., which is the parent company of Florida Crystals, who gave a combined $16,800.

Former colleagues said Hastings was a fighter for the industry because it meant protecting jobs in the area. The sugar companies provide some 12,000 jobs to seasonal and permanent residents during the six-month harvest season.

Environmental groups and some residents are now calling on the industry to end burning and switch to an alternative cultivation method, where blades are used instead of fire. The U.S. and China are the only nations among the top five sugar-producing countries that have not moved to phase out cane burning. American sugar interests, however, say the switch would not work due to the climate and soil makeup in South Florida. The transition, they say, would also lead to job losses.

Some candidates acknowledge the economic importance of the industry, but see cane burning as a racial justice issue, too. The Glades area of Palm Beach County is made up of three cities that sit along the southeastern shore of Lake Okeechobee, surrounded by the Everglades Agricultural Area. The residents are mostly Black and Hispanic families who have lived in the area for generations, as well as migrant field workers from the Caribbean and Central America. The largest city, Belle Glade, has a poverty rate of 41%.

“If I say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ I have to mean it not just when Black folks are getting killed by the police,” Hardy told The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica. “I have to mean it when their children are getting asthma because large corporations can't figure out how to make a profit off of sugar cane without fouling the air that those kids breathe.”

Taylor, a former Democratic state representative who represented the Glades area during her tenure, said rural residents living amidst hundreds of thousands of acres of sugar cane fields deserve the same governmental protection as residents who live in the more populated coastal areas of the county. About 40 miles to the east sits former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home and other wealthy enclaves.

“The people in the Glades deserve the same as everyone else. They deserve to be safe,” Taylor said. “I think we should do everything possible to assure that.”

At the local level, the mayors and city commissioners who represent the Glades have generally backed the sugar industry, emphasizing the importance of agricultural jobs to their communities. In fact, earlier this year, some testified in support of the bill that further protected sugar companies from lawsuits over air pollution.

The elected officials who represent the area at the county and state levels have largely declined to weigh in. Just two responded to requests for comment for this story: State Sen. Tina Polsky and Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, the latter of whom was recently appointed to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Local Government Advisory Committee, a panel for local officials to provide input on environmental and public health issues. Both of them, however, declined to speak on the issue of cane burning, citing an ongoing lawsuit that Glades residents have filed against sugar companies in federal court; neither the state nor the county are parties to the lawsuit.