US EPA: Investigate the Discriminatory Effects of Big Sugar’s Pre-harvest Sugar Field Burning

WASHINGTON D.C. - On Friday, August 25, 2023, the Sierra Club filed a formal complaint with EPA pursuant to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act regarding the sugarcane field burn authorization practices of the Florida Forest Service. The complaint describes how the Florida Forest Service’s practices result in authorizing field burns when the wind is blowing toward predominantly Black communities in the sugar-growing region of Palm Beach County while denying requests for burn authorizations when the wind is blowing toward largely white communities to the east. 

Sierra Club’s complaint asks EPA to investigate the discriminatory effects of these practices— which deprive predominantly Black communities of protections from the impacts of smoke and ash that are afforded to largely white communities in the same county—and to determine whether the Florida Forest Service’s actions subject Black communities in the sugar growing region to discrimination in violation of the requirements under Title VI. Title VI prohibits race-based discrimination by programs or activities receiving Federal funding, and directs agencies to effectuate that prohibition.    

Joya Manjur, Legal Fellow, Sierra Club Environmental Law Program stated:  “Next steps may include an investigation by EPA, findings, and a determination regarding compliance. After conducting a preliminary investigation, EPA may initiate a collaborative resolution process to achieve voluntary compliance. Measures to achieve compliance could include the prevention of burns everywhere from which smoke or ash plumes could reach communities within the sugar growing region, or better yet, a phase-out of all sugarcane field burning authorizations in South Florida.”  

The “expertise” of stop pre-harvest sugar cane field burning campaign leaders—who live in Florida’s sugar-growing region—in describing the negative impacts of the outdated, toxic practice, makes clear the black-and-white contrast between the Glades experience and the protected status other communities enjoy. 

Ras Benjahmen, Lake Harbor resident:

“Why does the Florida Forest Service allow Big Sugar to continue to foul the air we breathe and choke our local Glades economy, when they have kept the ash and smoke from whiter neighborhoods for over 30 years?”

Colin Walkes, resident and former Mayor of Pahokee: 

“We are asking the EPA to hold the Florida Forest Service accountable for the discriminatory practice of pre-harvest sugar cane field burning that poses a threat to the health and wealth of my Black and Brown neighbors. EPA hear us please and deliver us from the yearly, 8-month long, smoke and ash Armageddon that our white neighbors are spared.”

Kina Phillips, South Bay resident:

“We need our calls for justice to be heard and ask the EPA to use its authority to remedy this deadly environmental injustice.  It cannot be legal to let the Florida Forest Service choose who they protect and who they keep sick and dying.  Stop the burn and we will all be equally protected.”

Anne Haskell, retired school teacher and resident of Belle Glade: 

“Over the course of close to 30 years, working as a teacher in the Glades, I grew tired of seeing students made sick by the smoke and ash.  I’m fighting angry that so many of my students’ futures were destroyed by the joblessness and economic distress caused by discriminatory burn protocols.”

Christine Louis-Jeune, FAMU student and resident of Belle Glade:

“When I finish school I would like to be able to return home to a community that is not plagued by eight months of toxic smoke and ash. The protocols allowing Big Sugar's outdated harvesting practices leave us exposed, while whiter communities to the east receive protections. We deserve better!”

Steve Messam, Belle Glade resident and pastor:   

“We are joining our ancestors in the fight for civil rights for our people.  The burn rules that protect some and not others are inherently discriminatory, and until my Black and Brown brothers and sisters in the Glades are protected as well as those in Wellington, I will remain in the fight to stop pre-harvest sugar field burning.”  



BACKGROUND:  Last year ProPublica, in partnership with the Palm Beach Post, released a scathing investigative report on what they found.

“To harvest more than half of America’s cane sugar, billion-dollar companies set fire to fields, a money-saving practice that’s being banned by other countries. Some residents say they struggle to breathe, so we started tracking air quality.” - Black Snow; July 8, 2022

The previous year, the Palm Beach Post chronicled the Glades Residents’ plight and recently covered the complicity of the Palm Beach County Department of Health.


ABOUT SIERRA CLUB: The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with millions of members and supporters. In addition to protecting every person's right to get outdoors and access the healing power of nature, the Sierra Club works to promote clean energy, safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and legal action. For more information, visit

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