Stop The Burn–Go Green Harvest Campaign Statement on Pending NASA Sugar Field Burning Study
The announcement of the upcoming NASA-funded study highlights the growing public awareness of the injustice posed by the toxic, outdated and unnecessary practice of pre-harvest sugar field burning. It is a testament to how impacted community leaders in and around the Everglades Agricultural Area, persisting in speaking truth to power for six years, have elevated this issue to a national level, and we are grateful for the attention.
However, although we are not against science or the collection of new data, and are not opposed to the new NASA-funded study, we are wary of it when it may be used against our call for an immediate remedy. Waiting for data before action is taken is kicking the can down the road.
Florida and the nation have a long history of data and research on environmental hazards not translating into meaningful environmental laws or regulations. Cancer Alley in Louisiana, an 85-mile stretch of petrochemical manufacturing facilities along the Mississippi River, serves as an unfortunate example of how increased air quality monitoring alone is no guarantee that environmental justice will be achieved. A 2015 EPA report confirmed that census blocks within the heart of the chemical industry in Louisiana's Cancer Alley have a cancer risk rate 50-times the national average, and in response, the EPA set up air quality monitoring stations at six separate locations in St. John's Parish. Despite the EPA monitors consistently recording cancer-causing chloroprene emissions dozens of times higher than EPA recommendations, including one instance in 2017 when chloroprene levels were measured at 755 times the EPA recommended guidelines, true protective regulations on regional polluters have not been implemented.
Denka Performance Elastomer, one of the main corporate polluters in the region responsible for the dangerous levels of chloroprene in the region, has used tactics straight out of Big Sugar's playbook to cast doubt on scientific research, leverage their resources to obtain lenient state and federal regulators, and drum up support from local politicians representing fence line communities who have ties to the industry.
It is not lost on us that communities of color and lower-wealth neighborhoods, like those in Cancer Alley and in the Glades, are constantly being told to wait, wait until it is politically expedient, wait until the next election, wait until the study is done.
Cancer Alley and the Everglades Agricultural Area highlight the reality that there are two standards of environmental protection in the United States: those afforded to predominantly White higher-wealth communities and those afforded to communities of color and lower-wealth communities. In 1991, public outcry from residents in Eastern Palm Beach County brought about new wind direction-based sugar field burning regulations to protect them without the need of any expensive studies to prove their communities were being harmed by the toxic smoke and ash. Studying, which takes time and money that could be instead spent on the transition toward burn-free green harvesting, rather than phasing out the toxic practice immediately, is a form of environmental racism.
Why are we expected to wait for more data? Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried and her administration have ignored an existing mountain of data on the negative impacts of sugar cane burning.
Commissioner Fried has full authority to add meaningful protections for the communities impacted by toxic sugarcane burning. Commissioner Fried has ignored a long line of public demands for her administration to act. We are not less deserving of quick action than the residents of Wellington, and after 30 years, this disparate treatment is clearly an example of environmental racism.
Even if new data from the NASA study leads to strong regulatory action to end pre-harvest sugar field burning, residents in and around the Everglades Agricultural Area will continue to have their health, quality of life, local economy, and natural environment polluted by pre-harvest sugar field burning for at least 18 more months, when the study is to conclude. We are once again threatened by the next burn season that begins on Oct. 1. We are done waiting.
No new data will make it more necessary to stop pre-harvest sugar field burning. Who doesn't already know that breathing toxic smoke is bad for you? Why else would the Center for Disease Control (CDC) encourage the cessation of agricultural fires during the Covid pandemic? It isn't rocket science. Sugar growers around the world have already modernized and transitioned toward burn-free green harvesting. The phase-out of burning in Florida should begin immediately.