They call it “black snow” when the ash from the burning sugar cane rains down on the small communities dotting the south shore of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. From October to April, ash and soot fall from the sky and settle on everything, blackening yards and blowing in open windows. Asthma, chronic bronchitis, and sinus problems plague area residents during the burning season, and local doctors usually ask patients how close they live to the cane fields.
Fred Brockman remembers the day in 2008, when 14 students at Rosenwald Elementary School in South Bay were treated for respiratory problems after exposure to smoke; five with asthma were hospitalized. Brockman spent six years working at Rosenwald, surrounded on three sides by cane fields pressing right up to the fence and said the school was “smoked,” often.
“We had smoke every time the wind blew our way during a burn,” Brockman said. “It would get dark and smoky…lots of the kids had breathing problems.”
Compounding the residents’ health woes is a widespread belief that Florida’s sugar companies only burn around lower-income communities of color. At the same time, advocates believe that the companies practice “green harvest”—a method that both protects air quality and residents’ health—around wealthier, whiter communities and near commercial districts. This process creates additional economic benefits by repurposing field waste that would otherwise get burned.
In early June, a high-profile group of plaintiffs and lawyers filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of more than 40,000 residents living by the sugar cane fields near Lake Okeechobee. The suit names a dozen sugar growers as defendants and blames them for health risks and lowered property values as a result of burning sugar cane fields. Residents say the decades-old practice of pre-harvest burning by sugar companies has caused unprecedented levels of respiratory illnesses and other problems from toxic smoke exposure.
Sugar industry representatives did not respond to requests for comment, but according to Tim O’Connor, a state health department spokesman, air pollutants do spike during the actual burning, but it dissipates and the sugar cane burning doesn’t violate federal air quality standards,.
A Tale of Two Cities
The small, lakeside towns of Belle Glade, Pahokee, and South Bay, referred to as the Tri-Cities, are designated by the State of Florida as a Rural Area of Critical Economic Concern. Belle Glade’s motto is “Her Soil is Her Fortune.” But the fortune doesn’t trickle down: The working-class residents, many of whom are agricultural workers, have an average income of about $37,000. Many are Haitians and Jamaicans who came to the U.S. to cut the cane before the big sugar companies moved to mechanical harvesters.
There’s a saying in Belle Glade that the lakeside town has two exports: sugar cane and wide receivers. Football is leading many of these low-income families out of their limited lives, because if a local player gets into the NFL, they bring a lot of people with them.
“Muck City,” as sportscasters call Belle Glade and Pahokee, has contributed nearly 60 players to the NFL over the years. In fact, there’s a tale that local football players hone their skills by chasing rabbits escaping from the burning fields.
One of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs is Fred Taylor, who was a star at Glades Central High School before an 11-year NFL career. Taylor said he and many of the people he grew up with experienced respiratory challenges and related health problems.
“If nothing more, [the sugar companies] need to promote awareness and get down to the bottom of these health issues because the community is dying,” Taylor said at the press conference announcing the suit. He wants the sugar companies to take responsibility for the problems he believes are caused by burning. “The black snow that comes from the sky, people are breathing that stuff in. They’re getting sicker and sicker every day,” he said.
Taylor and others in Belle Glade anti-burn advocacy groups want the sugar industry to stop burning the fields and switch to green harvest to spare local residents. They point to the burn restrictions in place if prevailing winds would blow smoke toward Wellington, an upscale development 30 miles east of Belle Glade on the way to Palm Beach. Filled with multi-million dollar estates for the affluent and famous, Bill Gates has a home in Wellington, as do Bruce Springsteen and other luminaries.
Communities like Wellington are seldom subjected to smoke from sugarcane burning. The Florida Forestry Service began issuing permits for cane growers to burn in the 1990s, when they received complaints about smoke and haze drifting east toward Wellington and Palm Beach. Now they cannot burn if winds blow in that direction. Tri-Cities residents want those same protections.
‘Green Harvest,’ an Alternative to Burning
The lawsuit aims to require Florida sugar companies to harvest sugarcane without burning it—a technique called “green harvest,” which is practiced in sugar-growing regions around the world. Thailand wants to phase out cane burning over the next three years, and Brazil, the world’s largest producer of sugar, mandated an end to burning in 2017.
“[Sugar companies] burn the cane to remove the outer leaves before harvest,” said Patrick Ferguson, an organizer at environmental group Sierra Club. “But companies around the world use green harvest technology, and in many countries burning is banned.” While Sierra Club is not part of the class-action lawsuit, the group has been conducting a “Stop the Burn” campaign in Florida since 2015.
After the sugarcane leaves or “trash” is burned off, the cane is milled to extract the sweet syrup. The remaining fiber is called bagasse. With a green harvest, machines with cutting blades remove the outer foliage, which can then be collected to make biochar, mulch, and ethanol.
Green harvest is often employed to reduce smog in cities, but advocates say it brings a number of economic and health benefits as well. Brazil has built a thriving industry using sugarcane trash to produce electricity, fuel pellets, ethanol and jet fuels, commercial mulch, and tree-free paper products, along with bagasse.
Ferguson recently returned from a trip to Brazil to study industry practices there, and calls the country the “most advanced cane-growing nation.”
“In Brazil, they utilize the whole plant with green harvest,” he explained, adding that the the sugar trash gets used as mulch, can is also mixed with bagasse to generate electricity and ethanol at sugar mills.
In Australia, the Rocky Point Company started green harvesting sugarcane in 1993, baling the leaf for cattle feed and garden mulch instead of burning it. Rocky Point’s Sugar Cane Mulch sells millions of bags every year by refining raw products from nearby farms.
Closer to home, U.S., paper products company Emerald Brand processes agricultural trash into tree-free paper, cardboard, and bio-plastics. They note that “burning and wasting this valuable material takes time and energy away from farmers when processed trash can be made into paper, cardboard, and bio-plastics.”
Advocates say that green harvest is not only cleaner and healthier, it also creates jobs, and in the Glades communities that would be an asset. And yet Glades sugar farmers claim advocates are trying to eliminate jobs by going to green harvest.
“This attack is simply another of their efforts to put the sugar industry out of business,” said Judy Sanchez, a spokesperson for U.S. Sugar Corp, adding stopping the burning “would significantly impact our business and take jobs away.”
But the Florida sugar industry is already working to benefit from bagasse. In March 2018, Tellus—a company jointly owned by the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida and Florida Crystals Corporation—opened a $75 million, state-of-the art manufacturing facility in Belle Glade offering biodegradable products such as plates and take-out containers made from bagasse. The facility is located by the sugar mill, powered by solar and renewable biomass from the mill, and according to Tellus officials, employed 50 people at launch, with a goal of hiring a total of 100 employees, 90 percent of whom will be local.
The Tellus facility is a rare exception for businesses seeking to locate in Belle Glade, residents say, because who wants to have to wash soot off cars every day? Some residents say this has caused a job shortage. One compared the practice of burning to hazardous dirty coal jobs, and said the cane industry needs something similar to programs that have trained coal workers for clean-energy jobs that pay better and support families.
With the hot summer slowing everything down, everyone in this community is waiting to see what happens next with the lawsuit. In the meantime, burning season won’t start again until October.
Kina Phillips is a lifelong resident of Belle Glades, and seven generations of her family have grown up here. Most of her family members have suffered from respiratory ailments, and attended Rosenwald Elementary in nearby South Bay.
“My grandson is five and he has to use a breathing machine sometimes, especially during burning season,” said Phillips, 44, who runs the front office for a heart specialist in Belle Glade and says she sees people suffering from the effects of the cane smoke all the time. Phillips says she wants to fight the cane burning so her kids won’t have to, so she decided to speak out to join the Stop the Burn campaign. She has not yet joined the suit, but she’s “looking into it.”
“This is my battle, and they can’t stop me,” she said. “They could go to green harvest and stop burning,” she said. “Our lives are worth that.”
(This article was updated to reflect the fact that Brazil is not currently making biochar from sugar trash and bagasse.)