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Farmers seek to dismiss refiled lawsuit alleging harm from controlled sugar-cane burns

Plaintiffs allege those burns cause health problems, including exacerbating negative health effects from COVID-19.

U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals and other South Florida agribusinesses are seeking to dismiss a refiled lawsuit alleging controlled sugar-cane burns are causing health problems for nearby residents in the Glades.

That lawsuit was originally filed in June 2019. Plaintiff residents argued the smoke from burns contains pollutants which spread outside of farmland into communities, causing harm for those living nearby.

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.

This past May, a judge dismissed several of the plaintiffs’ claims, arguing they were not sufficiently supported.

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

“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 did, however, allow the plaintiffs to refile their suit. The newly-amended complaint now attempts to address the judge’s concerns. To boot, plaintiffs also argue the particles could exacerbate negative health effects from COVID-19.

Judy Sanchez, the senior director of corporate communications and public affairs at U.S. Sugar, explained the push to dismiss the revived suit.

“Publicly available air quality monitoring data maintained by the State of Florida has shown, and continues to show, that the Glades communities have some of the best air quality in the state,” Sanchez argued.

“This is a science-based fact, supported by actual data. The hypothetical, preliminary model included in the Plaintiffs’ second amended complaint is a nonsensical misrepresentation of reality and is a disservice to our community. This is unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected, given the historical playbook of those who willingly ignore data and use baseless claims to attack our communities.”

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.

The motion also raised questions over the modeling used in the Plaintiffs’ complaint. According the motion, “Further showing their implausibility, Plaintiffs’ models project air quality that is comparable to or far worse than air quality in the vicinity of significantly larger emission events like the Mount St. Helens’ volcanic eruption and the recent massive Camp Fire in California.”

Sanchez argues U.S. Sugar is factoring in the safety of Glades residents when conducting the burns.

“As farmers, we rely on proven science and data to inform our daily growing and harvesting decisions,” Sanchez said. “Just as important, we live in this community and take very serious our responsibility to be good neighbors and stewards of our environment. That is a commitment we will never waver on or compromise.”

The Berman Law Group, a South Florida-based firm, is representing plaintiffs in the suit.

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