Ash ends up everywhere: it’s on laundry, in cars, and in the greenery on blankets in backyards.

Black snow, as the ash is known, falls and blankets homes in parts of South Florida from October through May each year as planned burns are carried out across thousands of acres of sugar cane fields to help farmers. crops.

The people who live around the south shore of Lake Okeechobee, An area which includes predominantly black and Latino communities and many living in poverty, have complained for decades about the ash. While nearby sugar companies and farmers insist the state strictly regulates burning, some residents say they stay indoors with windows closed in an effort to prevent respiratory illnesses.

Ahead of the current pre-harvest burning season, Florida State University researchers published a study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, stating that between one and six people die each year due to health complications caused by crop burning. The researchers also cite previous work showing that burns are known to cause asthma, lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. Members of Florida’s Stop the Burn movement say they hope the study, in addition to joining forces with a similar campaign in Louisiana, will bring national attention to their long-running battle and push sugar companies and farmers to consider alternatives to burning. .

Efforts to stop the practice of burning sugarcane

According to the sierra clubAn environmental group that has organized the Stop the Burn campaign, black and Latino residents in western Palm Beach County, who are «surrounded by more than 75 percent of Florida’s total sugarcane acreage,» have more likely to interact with the consequences of burns. .

Burnt sugarcane is harvested in Clewiston, Florida, in 2015. Andrew West / The News-Press / USA Today Network

Kina Phillips, who joined the Stop the Burn campaign seven years ago, had been working as a patient outreach coordinator for a doctor when, she said, she noticed the impact burning sugarcane was having on the health of the community. .

“We had to put more people on breathing machines and write scripts for asthma medication during the burn,” he said. «We had to call ambulances when they could hardly breathe.»

An eight-year review of hospital data in 2021 by the research organization ProPublica and the Palm Beach Post newspaper, showed a peak in hospital and emergency room visits for residents of Belle Glade, the largest city in the burned area, during fire season.

RD Williams, executive director of Hendry Regional Medical Center in Clewiston, Florida, said his center’s records show little fluctuation in respiratory problems from month to month, except for some «variability during flu season, which seems to coincide with harvest season.» «.

Influence of the sugar industry in the region

Farmers burn sugarcane to destroy unnecessary leaves so they can be harvested more easily and efficiently. The sugar companies point out that the Florida Forest Service issues permits to farmers to conduct burns and that burns are carefully monitored by government regulations. The Florida Forest Service did not respond to questions.

Sugar farming is big business in South Florida, employing more than 14,000 people and generating about $800 million in revenue a year, according to Palm Beach County. Environmental activists say the power of «Big Sugar» makes some people hesitant to criticize the burning.

“Some people say that the sugar companies do a lot of good,” said Luz Torres, a Stop the Burn campaigner who lives in Pahokee. “They are afraid that the sugar company will close and they will lose their jobs. Some people say to me: ‘Light, what is the difference between what burns in the air and people smoking?’ I say: ‘I don’t choose to have ash fall on me and breathe smoke.’

The two largest sugar companies in the state, US Sugar. and Florida Crystals have repeatedly stated that they are in compliance with state air quality measures.

US Sugar did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement, Florida Crystals said the company «is committed to safe farming practices.» Prescribed burns, the company said, “are regulated and permitted on a daily, field-by-field basis by the Florida Forest Service as part of the State of Florida’s nationally recognized regulatory program. Air quality monitoring by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and private air monitors consistently shows that our agricultural region of the Glades has some of the best air quality in the state of Florida, better than the state average, year after year».

But there has long been disagreement about how air quality is measured.

Availability of air quality data makes activist claims difficult

Katherine Pruitt, senior national policy director for the American Lung Association, said the organization does not “support agricultural burning; we believe it has a negative impact on health and air. But for a community fighting an industry like this, they need more data. It’s a challenge when it’s your story against mine.»

The American Lung Association recently released its «State of the Air» report and gave Palm Beach County an «A» for air quality.

Smoke, reportedly from a burning sugarcane field, rises in the background as farmworkers and their allies take a break during a five-day march to demand better wages and working conditions on March 14, 2023 in Pahokee. , fl.
Smoke, reportedly from a burning sugarcane field, rises in the background as farmworkers and their allies take a break during a five-day march to demand better wages and working conditions on March 14, 2023 in Pahokee. , fl. Rebecca Blackwell/AP File

“We don’t collect air quality data ourselves,” Pruitt said. “We use data collected by the EPA. We trust the EPA state monitors. In Palm Beach there are three monitors for the entire county.”

There are no monitors in Belle Glade, Pahoke and Clewiston in Hendry County, Palm Beach County’s western neighbor, he added. EPA monitors do not detect short-term spikes like those caused by agricultural burning.

“We’re not seeing an intensity of exposure in those communities because we can’t capture it if there’s not a monitor there,” Pruitt said.

While the region passed the State of the Air report, he said, “the annual particulate pollution in Palm Beach County doesn’t look very good. It doesn’t violate clean air standards, but pollution is on the rise. We know that burning things produces these deadly particles, but it can also come from exhaust pipes.»

Globally, prescribed burns are becoming obsolete

In 2015, the Sierra Club officially launched its Stop the Burn Campaign, answering the call of residents in the burned region. Patrick Ferguson, Sierra Club’s senior organizing representative for Florida, has since visited Brazil, which stopped burning sugar cane fields and instead uses equipment that allows farmers to cut the cane. He said they hope to convince Florida sugar companies to do the same.

David Mitchell, CEO of CROPS Carbon International, was interviewed for this article from Ireland, where he is working with farmers to reduce their environmental impact.

“There is an opportunity for farmers to be heroes again,” he said. One method he points to is storing sugarcane waste deep in the ocean to help marine ecology.

Mitchell says the cost of hauling the trash into the deep sea is nominal compared to the current burning route or other alternatives that require expensive equipment.

On the sidelines, watching anxiously, are independent farmers who have contracts with sugar companies and who say their methods are highly regulated and do no harm.

Ardis Hammock has lived on his 105-year-old farm for 47 years. “I don’t remember a time when there hasn’t been an activist group that hasn’t been attacking us for some reason,” she said.

She owns the farm on the southwest shore of Lake Okeechobee with her husband.

“I have sugar cane fields 30 feet from my house and I don’t have any health problems associated with the burn,” Hammock said. “I raised my two children in this house and they never had any health problems from the burn. As a mother, I would never put my children in danger because I thought it was caused by my lifestyle.»

Phillips, of the Stop the Burn campaign, said she also worries about what she could pass on to the children in her family.

Kina Phillips Jamal Tillman
Kina Phillips holds her then-5-year-old grandson Jamal Tillman at her home in South Bay, Florida, in 2019. File Ellis Rua / AP

“My daughter had a son who was born during the time of the burning,” he said. «He was a very healthy baby, except we noticed that when we took him out, he was struggling to breathe.»

Although their grandson has improved, the family manages his breathing to deal with congestion during burn season.

“I grew up here and there were things that we were so used to and adapted to, that weren’t good,” Phillips said. “But it was normal for all my friends to have asthma, normal for people to have breakouts on their skin and when they went elsewhere, it cleared up. Everyone’s parents got disability checks because they had severe asthma. When we went on school field trips, they had inhalers for us. We didn’t think about what was causing it.»

He said he is defending his ancestors who couldn’t because they feared losing their jobs in sugar companies or because they didn’t have information from health studies.

“We cannot leave this on the shoulders of our children. They will have another injustice that they will have to fight against.