Series: Black Snow
Big Sugar’s Burning Problem
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.
For years, residents living amid Florida’s sugar fields have complained about pre-harvest crop burning, which sends smoke and ash into their communities. And for years, state health and environmental officials, as well as sugar companies, have said the air is healthy to breathe.
But now, leading lawmakers in Congress are calling for a federal investigation into how the state has tracked air quality while also pressing to tighten the nation’s pollution standards, in response to an investigation by The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica that found a series of shortcomings in how authorities monitor the air in Florida’s heartland.
State officials used a single monitor to track air quality across the 400,000-acre sugar-growing region for at least eight years, despite telling their federal counterparts that it was malfunctioning and unfit to determine whether the air met standards set under the Clean Air Act, the landmark law aimed at protecting public health. The news organizations also found that current pollution standards fail to capture short-term spikes in pollution, a defining feature of Florida’s sugar harvesting process, when burning releases bursts of harmful smoke into the atmosphere. U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, the region’s two largest sugar producers, have challenged the investigation’s methodology and conclusions, saying the practice of burning is heavily regulated and that the air is safe.
Citing the reporting, Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon and one of the upper chamber’s leading voices on environmental justice, said he wants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the circumstances around the malfunctioning monitor and create protocols to make sure a similar situation does not happen again.
As The Post and ProPublica reported last month, the EPA allowed the state to continue using the monitor to track the Air Quality Index, a public information tool that communicates whether the air is good, unhealthy or hazardous. The move, however, meant federal officials could no longer use the equipment to hold polluters accountable if they found Clean Air Act violations.
“What the predominantly Black and Hispanic communities living near cane fields in Florida have been put through is completely unacceptable,” said Merkley, who serves as chair of the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on environmental justice and regulatory oversight, in a statement. “No one — regardless of the color of their skin, where they live, or their income — should have to breathe in harmful smoke, or worry about whether their child is getting poisoned when they play outside.”
Changes to the nation’s air-monitoring framework are necessary, Merkley said, “to make it harder for industries to bury evidence of the dangerous pollution levels they’re causing.”
Likewise, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a top Democrat in Florida representing parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, called on the EPA to revamp its standards to capture short-term pollution, adding, “Clean Air Act methodologies often fail in that regard.”
The EPA measures particulate matter, a harmful fine soot pollution, using 24-hour and annual averages. But, as The Post and ProPublica reported last month, those averages sometimes obscure short-term pollution, like that seen during cane burning.
To better understand air conditions during the burns, The Post and ProPublica partnered with residents to install air sensors at homes in Pahokee, one of three towns that dot the Glades, a region of 31,000 people living amid cane fields. The sensors tracked particulate matter, a mixture of pollutants that researchers have tied to heart and lung disease. The sensor readings showed repeated spikes in pollution on days when the state had authorized cane burning and projected smoke would blow toward the sensors, The Post and ProPublica analysis found. The spikes often lasted less than an hour and were less frequent and less pronounced on days when the wind was blowing in other directions.
In June, EPA officials announced that they are reviewing the agency’s particulate matter standards, after acknowledging that exposure to this pollution in the long- and short-term can be harmful.
“The most vulnerable Americans are most at risk from exposure to particulate matter, and that’s why it’s so important we are taking a hard look at federal standards that haven’t been updated in nine years,” agency spokesperson Tim Carroll wrote in an email Tuesday. The EPA plans to propose changes in summer 2022 and a final rule the following spring.
The smoke from cane burning disproportionately affects the Glades communities, where about a third of the population lives below the poverty line. In the 1990s, Florida agriculture officials banned burning when the wind blows toward the wealthier, whiter communities east of the cane fields, after residents there complained.
Wasserman Schultz, a member of the House appropriations subcommittee on agriculture and the committee on oversight and reform, noted that Congress passed recent legislation that made $100 million available to state and local environmental agencies to bolster air monitoring. Half of that amount is dedicated to communities that face disproportionate exposure to pollution. She called on Florida to apply.
“State and local officials don’t have the right air monitoring tools to determine how these communities are being harmed,” Wasserman Schultz said. “The State of Florida must invest in air quality monitoring in the Glades to truly understand how communities are impacted.”
Rep. Lois Frankel, a Florida Democrat whose district is just northeast of the Glades, said her office would be available to help the state pursue these grants.
The Post and ProPublica asked Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat who represents parts of Palm Beach and Broward counties southeast of the Glades, whether the EPA should change the way it tracks particulate matter or whether states should enhance air monitoring to better measure localized pollution. In response, he said, “As a society, we should be doing all we can — at the federal level, state level, and private entities — to protect vulnerable communities from potentially unhealthy living conditions created by hazardous air emissions.”
Whether Florida will seek federal funding is unclear. Air monitoring in the Glades is overseen by the state Department of Environmental Protection, using equipment owned and operated by the Palm Beach County Health Department. Neither agency responded to questions about whether they plan to pursue federal grant funding to bolster monitoring in the area, but they have defended the quality of Florida’s air.
Elected officials in the region have also been largely silent. Of the four policymakers representing the Glades at the county and state levels, just one responded to requests for comment for this story.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, whose district includes the Glades, said in a statement that she supports Merkley’s call for an investigation into the malfunctioning air monitor, in Belle Glade, and encourages state environmental officials to pursue the air-monitoring grants.
The Glades has lacked a representative in the U.S. House since April, when Congressman Alcee Hastings died from pancreatic cancer. A special primary election for the heavily Democratic seat is set for November, with the general election slated for January 2022. The Post and ProPublica left messages for the 17 candidates who qualified for the ballot. Just three responded: Rev. Elvin Dowling, Phil Jackson and Emmanuel Morel. All three Democrats supported Merkley’s request for an investigation and said officials need to bolster air monitoring in the Glades. They also said the industry should consider changes to its harvest practices to better protect public health. None of the six candidates who have raised the most campaign dollars responded to our requests.
The sugar industry is the largest employer in the area and one of the largest political donors in Florida.
For its part, the Palm Beach County Health Department has defended its air-monitoring efforts, noting in a statement that the EPA approved the state’s air-monitoring plan, including the continued use of the Belle Glade monitor. “The Department of Health continues to work with the Department of Environmental Protection to ensure we are upholding the Clean Air Act,” a spokesperson wrote.
A Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson also defended the state’s air monitoring, noting that even though The Post and ProPublica’s sensor analysis found short spikes in air pollution, the state’s 24-hour averages are well within federal standards. Both the Health Department and DEP referred detailed questions to the EPA.
Carroll, the EPA spokesperson, told The Post and ProPublica that the federal agency “shares the concerns of our partners in Congress and residents of Florida when it comes to harmful particulate matter in the air and we’re working quickly to address the issue, which includes working with the State of Florida to upgrade the Belle Glade monitor.”
After the news organizations started asking questions about the monitor this year, state and local officials said they planned to replace the equipment with a monitor that will meet the EPA’s strict accuracy standards. A June Health Department report noted the monitor was expected to be installed in July, but a spokesperson subsequently said it would happen “later in 2021.”
As this plays out, researchers from six universities are stepping in this fall to learn more about cane burning.
A week after The Post and ProPublica published its investigation, a division of NASA dedicated to air quality and health announced it would be partnering with a team of scientists to study the impacts of sugar cane burning and allocate a $218,000 grant toward the effort. The lead researcher, one of a half-dozen experts who advised the news organizations, said her grant proposal was spurred by the media outlets’ work. The study is poised to place 45 sensors across the community.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sugar, one of the largest sugar companies in the region, criticized the news organizations before publication, which the outlets wrote about, and again following the July 8 investigation. In press releases, the company dismissed The Post and ProPublica reporting, saying the story “ignored the facts on our local community and our sustainable farming practices” while encouraging residents to sign up for a tour of U.S. Sugar’s operations.
“Farmers respect our neighbors by treating them with honesty, fairness, and a commitment to the environment we all share by ensuring that our farming operations follow the best available scientific guidance and strictest regulations,” Judy Sanchez, a U.S. Sugar vice president, wrote last month.
The press releases did not allege any factual errors in the investigation, and there have been no corrections to the stories.