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Amended lawsuit lawsuit filed claiming pollution, health problems from sugar cane field burning

Tyler Treadway Treasure Coast Newspapers
Walton Sun

A Boca Raton law firm has filed an amended lawsuit charging the sugar industry with blanketing communities south of Lake Okeechobee with polluted smoke and "black snow" whenever sugarcane fields are burned before harvesting.

The amended complaint was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach, about a month after federal Judge Rodney Smith dismissed claims in the original lawsuit claiming smoke from the fires causes health problems to residents of Belle Glade, Canal Point, Clewiston, Indiantown, Moore Haven, Pahokee and South Bay.

But Smith left the door open for a claim alleging the smoke from fires used to burn off leaves and prepare stalks for harvesting contains pollutants.

To that end, the lawsuit alleges smoke from burning sugarcane fields exposes residents to pollutants including dioxins, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, ammonia and carbon.

The amended lawsuit also makes a new, and timely, health-related claim: that tiny particles in the smoke from the fields may increase the COVID-19 mortality rate.

The lawsuit cites a finding by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people with or recovering from COVID-19 may have decreased lung capacity and could be "at particularly high risk of respiratory health effects after exposure to smoke from open burning.”

The CDC recommends “a temporary ban on open burning as a quick and effective way to reduce smoke exposure for people with COVID-19.”

The class-action lawsuit filed by Hagens Berman and Berman Law Group names 11 Glades residents as plaintiffs and nine sugar growers, including giants U.S. Sugar Corp. and Florida Crystals, as defendants.

The suit also claims state regulations allow burn permits to sugarcane growers when prevailing winds blow smoke and ash plumes toward the poor Glades communities but denies them if the wind is blowing toward "the more affluent eastern Palm Beach County and eastern Martin County communities near the coast."

“Poorer, predominately non-white communities in western Palm Beach County, western Martin County, Hendry County and Glades County do not receive the same environmental protections as others," Steve Berman, co-founder and managing partner of Hagens Berman, said in a prepared statement. "They bear the brunt of the sugarcane growers’ unnecessary and environmentally harmful farming methods.”

Judy Sanchez, U.S. Sugar senior director for corporate communications and public affairs, said the company stands by "our safe harvesting practices, which are carefully regulated and permitted by Florida’s widely acclaimed, prescribed burn program."

Sugarcane growers rely on air-quality data collected by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection "to confirm that our farming practices are safe for all of us who live in the Glades communities," Sanchez said, "while the claims and data used by the plaintiffs’ attorneys are both inconsistent and misleading."

More:Read the entire statement by U.S. Sugar Corp.'s Judy Sanchez

Tyler Treadway is an environment reporter who specializes in issues facing the Indian River Lagoon. Support his work on TCPalm.com. Contact him at 772-221-4219 and tyler.treadway@tcpalm.com.