Judge deals blow to plaintiffs alleging harmful impacts from sugarcane burns

sugar cane (Large)
A U.S. District Judge dismissed most of the claims, but will allow an amended complaint.

A U.S. District Judge has poked holes in a lawsuit alleging that the sugar industry’s controlled crop burns are dangerous to nearby residents of the Glades.

U.S. District Judge Rodney Smith found most claims in that suit — filed in June 2019 — lacking, according to Law360.

Smith did allow a claim to move forward alleging the smoke from burns contains pollutants but dismissed other allegations.

“There is nothing in the amended complaint showing that each of the plaintiffs has been harmed by all of the defendants,” Smith said.

“While plaintiffs argue that the smoke and ash produced by defendants travels for miles, there are no such allegations in the amended complaint. Nor are there any allegations as to which direction the smoke and ash travel.”

He’s allowing complaints to refile to better support their allegations.

“We appreciate the Judge’s careful consideration of the arguments by the parties, as set out in the Court’s detailed Order,” wrote Judy Sanchez, U.S. Sugar‘s senior director for corporate communications and public affairs.

“As responsible American farmers and members of this community, we stand by our harvesting practices, which are safe, accepted, and regulated by the Florida Forest Service. Beyond any of these rulings and regulations, the people of U.S. Sugar live in these Glades communities and raise our families here — our children and grandchildren — in the neighborhoods, schools and churches throughout these small, close-knit farming towns. The health, safety and jobs of our communities all are vitally important to U.S. Sugar.”

Plaintiffs plan to file an updated complaint attempting to show those pollutants do affect Glades residents. A newly amended complaint is due May 22.

“We’ve gathered a lot more information since that amended complaint last August,” said plaintiff attorney Matthew Moore.

“We have the information about how the fumes from the burns spread out. We’ve been gathering that on discovery.”

The burns are done to remove leafy material from the stalks before they are harvested and moved to a mill.

The Florida Forest Service is tasked with regulating those burns. Permits are only issued if wind flow is not directing smoke to a community, which could cause potential spread of toxic material.

The Berman Law Group is also involved in the suit, representing the plaintiffs.

In announcing their effort last year, lead attorney Zachary West alleged the Florida Forest Service was “rubber-stamping” reviews. However, he failed to elaborate on that allegation.

The lawsuit does not target any government agencies, instead, it focuses in on the sugar producers themselves.

A county-by-county analysis of air pollution done by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows counties where those fields are located are cleaner than the state average.

Still, researchers stipulate that “short-term fluctuations” in counties’ air quality are not accounted for. Those burns take about 20 minutes and are done during specific parts of the year.

Ryan Nicol

Ryan Nicol covers news out of South Florida for Florida Politics. Ryan is a native Floridian who attended undergrad at Nova Southeastern University before moving on to law school at Florida State. After graduating with a law degree he moved into the news industry, working in TV News as a writer and producer, along with some freelance writing work. If you'd like to contact him, send an email to [email protected].


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