Sierra Club asks EPA to Investigate Discriminatory Effects of Sugar Field Burning in Florida

On August 25, Sierra Club filed a complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to remedy the discriminatory effects of sugar field burning. The complaint asks both agencies to investigate whether the Florida Forest Service’s burn authorization practices result in discrimination against predominantly Black communities in South Florida.

For decades, Florida forestry officials have systematically authorized sugarcane burns when the wind blows toxic air pollution toward the predominantly Black cities of Belle Glade, Pahokee, and South Bay, while denying burn authorizations when the wind would blow pollution toward the largely white communities of Wellington and Royal Palm Beach. This practice disproportionately burdens predominantly Black communities with the negative consequences of sugarcane burning. Smoke and ash emissions from sugarcane burns contain harmful pollutants that have been linked to severe health impacts, including lung cancer, cardiopulmonary disease, and premature death. Chronic exposure to sugarcane smoke can lead to respiratory issues such as asthma and bronchitis, as well as impacts on pregnancy and child development.

Pre-harvest sugar field burning takes place from October to May each year, and sugar companies typically burn approximately 400,000 acres of sugarcane fields in South Florida. Sierra Club’s complaint urges EPA and USDA to work with the Florida Forest Service to phase out the toxic, outdated practice of sugarcane burning in favor of green harvesting, a practical and safe alternative to pre-harvest cane field burning.

Environmental Law Program Senior Attorney Karimah Schoenhut and Legal Fellow Joya Manjur submitted this Title VI complaint on behalf of Sierra Club, in collaboration with Patrick Ferguson, Senior Organizing Representative for the Stop Sugar Field Burning Campaign, Cris Costello, Senior Organizing Manager for the Sierra Club Our Wild Florida Campaign, and Aaron Isherwood, Environmental Law Program Managing Attorney.