A new report on air quality in the Glades communities shows air in the region is clean and meets environmental standards despite criticism from some environmental groups.
U.S. Sugar has released its second annual “State of Our Air Report,” studying air quality in the area. Farmers in the region have pushed back against criticism that sugarcane burning degrades nearby air quality.
State-level reporting has shown Florida has some of the cleanest air in the country. And a county-by-county analysis of air pollution done by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showed counties where sugar fields are located are cleaner than the state average.
Critics, however, have argued the Belle Glade air quality monitor was malfunctioning, leading to readings of PM 2.5 levels — fine particles under 2.5 micrograms — falsely showing the nearby air was clean.
But the new report rebuts that claim in two ways. First, private air quality data collected from January 2018 through September 2021 tracks closely with the data collected from the Belle Glade monitor in the same timeframe. It demonstrates the air is “good” according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards, which is the best attainable designation.
Second, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) installed a new Belle Glade monitor late last year, replacing the old one. Data generated since that November installation reinforces data obtained from the previous monitor. The report overlaid PM 2.5 data from November 2021 and compared it with November readings from 2018, 2019 and 2020. The November 2021 readings are well within the range tracked in previous years.
Robert H. Buker Jr., U.S. Sugar’s president and CEO, praised the findings in a written statement.
“The people of U.S. Sugar are happy to release the Second Annual State of Our Air Report for the 2020-21 season, which shows that the Glades communities have air that is good, safe and clean,” Buker said. “U.S. Sugar, along with hundreds of independent family farmers, is proud of our partnership and commitment to our community.”
The findings follow similar results unveiled in the first edition of the report.
Last year, the Palm Beach Post teamed up with ProPublica for an investigation into Glades air quality, questioning whether debris released from sugar burns are reaching nearby residents. The State of Our Air Report pushes back against those claims, using both public air quality data and privately collected polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) data at multiple monitoring sites, according to the report.
A U.S. Sugar source said a preliminary version of the private air quality data was provided to editors and reporters at the Palm Beach Post during their reporting on the air quality issues in 2021. The outlet declined to use the information, and instead focused on off-the-shelf air quality monitors that can be less reliable, according to the source.
Sugar farmers also have faced lawsuits over the issue. But farmers have criticized those suits for relying on faulty data as well.
The State of Our Air Report also found levels of benzo(a)pyrene — which can cause health issues — were low in the Glades communities, far below safe level standards instituted by the EPA.
Sugarcane 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 only are issued if wind flow is not directing smoke to a community, which could potentially cause spread of toxic material.
The issue has divided the Glades communities over the years. While some have criticized the farmers’ practices, other community members have spoken out in support and said the burns are done safely.