March 25, 2020
COVID-19 Threat Underscores Need to End Sugar Field Burning
Belle Glade, FL — As sugar growers in and around the Everglades Agricultural Area continue to pre-harvest burn their sugarcane fields in the midst of the COVID-19 threat, today Sierra Club urged Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried to start the phase out of the yearly six- to eight-month burn season with a ban on burns within a 27- to 30-mile buffer zone. This is not a new request; the Stop the Burn Campaign has been demanding an end to the toxic, outdated practice since 2015 and first asked Commissioner Fried for the buffer zone around populated areas as a first phase of a future complete ban at a protest in Belle Glade on Nov. 23, 2019. The COVID-19 threat is an obvious underscore to the urgency of the demand for action.
March 25, 2020
Commissioner Nikki Fried
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Plaza Level 10, The Capitol
400 S. Monroe St.
Tallahassee, FL 32399-0800
RE: Stop the Burn and COVID-19
Dear Commissioner Fried:
In a press conference on Oct. 1, 2019, you said "keeping Florida's residents, communities and environment safe is my number one priority." You also announced a new 80-acre buffer zone to protect wildlands from pre-harvest burns. The Stop the Burn Campaign refuses to accept that people living in the Glades are less worthy of protection than are wildlands or less worthy of protection than the residents of Wellington. But as of today they remain unprotected. In fact, the new measures announced in October 2019 did nothing to keep the residents in and around the Everglades Agricultural Area safe and healthy. They are still choked by black snow while residents in Eastern Palm Beach County are protected by burn wind restrictions.
Per the Florida Forest Service's active burn tracking tool, ash plumes often travel well over 20 miles; in fact, we have identified ash plumes as long as 26.21 miles on the Forest Service website. As you and your department consider and implement measures to protect Floridians from COVID-19, you must not forget your stated priority. Pre-harvest sugar field burning is a constant threat to respiratory health in the Glades for six to eight months a year, and the added risk of COVID-19, on an already vulnerable population during the burning season, is the perfect impetus for you to finally institute the first phase of the end to pre-harvest sugar field burning right now — a 27- to 30-mile buffer around homes, schools, streets and churches.
A 27- to 30-mile buffer around Moore Haven, Clewiston, South Bay, Belle Glade, Pahokee, Indiantown and other impacted communities will be a first step toward providing those Florida citizens the protection to which they have a right but have been denied for generations.
We understand that the eventual complete ban of pre-harvest burning in the future must be effectuated in a series of phases; the COVID-19 threat requires that phase one begins right now.
A comment posted on our Stop the Burn Campaign Facebook page by a resident of the Glades who suffers from COPD, paints a vivid picture: "They are telling people not to leave their houses because of the virus. This is what I go through every year during sugar cane burning season every year. I can't even come out of my house every time they burn year after year. Unreal! What people are feeling right now with this virus, It's how I feel every time they burn sugar cane around here."
The following highlights the reality in which residents, and especially those with pre-existing respiratory conditions, find themselves as they endure exposure to toxic sugarcane burning pollution on top of the threat of COVID-19:
● The coronavirus is deadly enough. But some experts suspect bad air makes it worse: https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2020/03/15/smoking-air-pollution-coronavirus/
● Air pollution likely to increase coronavirus death rate, warn experts: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/17/air-pollution-likely-to-increase-coronavirus-death-rate-warn-experts
● Air pollution increases coronavirus vulnerability, experts say: https://www.foxnews.com/science/air-pollution-increases-coronavirus-vulnerability-experts-claim
To truly prioritize the health and safety of Glades residents, you must take the steps to institute a 27- to 30-mile buffer zone now. The sugar industry already "green harvests" when it is convenient for the industry itself; it is now time for the sugar industry to green harvest within 27 to 30 miles of human populations whether or not it is convenient, because Glades lives matter.
We expect bold leadership from you, Commissioner. We expect you to protect the health, safety and welfare of Florida's most vulnerable communities first. Institute the first phase of a ban on pre-harvest sugar field burning and you will be true to your promise and be the catalyst for a brand new, improved economic future for the Glades. Stand back and let the burning continue and you will be remembered as yet another politician who pays lip service only to your most vulnerable constituents.
Sierra Club organizing representative, Stop Sugar Field Burning Campaign
PO Box 2347
136A S. Main St, Belle Glade, FL 33430