Friday, June 26, 2015

Sierra Club Launches Stop Sugar Field Burning Campaign

The Sierra Club has launched a new, landmark campaign to stop the pre-harvest burning of sugarcane fields in South Florida. The goal of the Stop Sugar Field Burning Campaign is to help residents put an end to this damaging, outdated practice and stop the sugar growers from profiting at the expense of public health.

While most Floridians know about the havoc Big Sugar’s nitrogen and phosphorus pollution has wrought on the Everglades, many are unaware that the industry also poisons our air, making people sick when they burn the sugarcane fields. Florida’s sugarcane growers burn their fields before harvesting to dispose of the foliage, but this generates large plumes of smoke and puts communities throughout Palm Beach County at risk.

Burning sugarcane fields in Clewiston, Florida

Recent studies have shown that the particulate matter and the emissions produced by sugarcane field burning are far more hazardous than ever thought. Research has shown direct links to respiratory, cardiovascular and other serious diseases. Some of the chemicals emitted when the sugarcane is burned are carcinogens.

So while some people experience the burning eyes, sore throat, coughing and difficulty breathing as a nuisance, for others -- especially children, the elderly and people with asthma -- this pollution can be life-compromising and life-shortening.

Last harvest season, which runs for approximately half the year, an estimated 300,000 of 440,000 acres of sugarcane were burned. After the burns, the fields contain only the bamboo-like stalks. This allows the harvesters to go faster and decreases the tonnage that has to be taken to the mill for processing, maximizing profits for an already lucrative industry.
But while Florida sugar corporations say they burn to stay profitable, countries like Brazil and Australia have shown that “green harvesting” is a cost-effective, healthier alternative to sugarcane burning. 
Green harvesting makes beneficial use of the entire plant

Green harvesting makes beneficial use of the entire plant and there is no burning. The plant’s “waste” product can be left on the ground as a mulch for some soil types, transported to a facility with air scrubbers to produce electricity, or turned into products like bioplastics or biofuels. It’s time to end a practice that makes our communities sick and replace it with modern harvest techniques that protect our health.

At Saturday’s Big Sugar Summit, Dr. Henrique Silveira, a researcher at the Molecular Oncology Research Center at the Barretos Cancer Hospital in Brazil, presented his study which found irregularities in the chromosomes of workers who harvested sugarcane in burned fields (Emissions generated by sugarcane burning promote genotoxicity in rural workers: a case study in Barretos, Brazil). These workers were exposed to the smoke most directly and for prolonged periods, making them unfortunate examples of how significant the health threat can be. Even though Florida's growers use harvesters, exposure to this pollution is a risk. As a result of health concerns, the industry in Sao Paulo has voluntarily agreed to reduce burning and most sugarcane fields are now green-harvested.

Henrique Silveira is a researcher at the Molecular Oncology Research Center in Brazil

James Stormer, recently retired Environmental Administrator for the Palm Beach County Health Department, presented research conducted here in Florida. In 2010, researchers from the University of Florida burned the species of sugarcane grown in Florida in a combustion chamber and identified contaminants on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) air pollutant list.

James Stormer, former Environmental Administrator, Palm Beach County Health Department

 They measured polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, carbonyl and volatile organic compounds as well as fine particle particulates, organic carbon, and elemental carbon. The researchers detected hazardous air pollutants the EPA is required to regulate, including naphthalene, formaldehyde, benzene and styrene. These toxins can cause impacts ranging from drowsiness and headaches to neurological and liver damage. (PAHs, carbonyls, VOCs and PM2.5 emission factors for pre-harvest burning of Florida sugarcane)

Importantly, while the county’s monitors have not found violations for particulate matter, they measure over a twenty-four hour period and do not capture what residents actually experience. The sugarcane field burns are episodic and intense.  Further, the county does not monitor for these hazardous chemicals. In sum, the State of Florida has not studied these impacts adequately as has Brazil and other countries.

David Guest, managing attorney for Earthjustice Florida, described the legal work Earthjustice is doing in partnership with the Sierra Club to make sure Floridians are protected. Guest said simply, “This is a massive source of toxic air pollution.”
David Guest, Managing Attorney, Earthjustice Florida
Earthjustice recently asked the Florida Department of Environmental Protection not to re-issue Clean Air Act permits to Okeelanta Corp., the sugar company owned by the Fanjul family: DEP did not respond. As a result, Earthjustice will ask the EPA to review the permit and take other steps as necessary.

Julia Hathaway, Sierra Club organizing representative, talked about the goals for the Stop Sugar Field Burning Campaign: “We need to build on the successes of Brazil and Australia and tailor green harvesting techniques to Florida. It is just not acceptable for an industry to externalize the costs of doing business onto society. It’s time to end a practice that makes our community sick.”
She added, "We can make this happen, but we will have to come together and be a voice for those people who live in the Everglades Agricultural Area. These communities are among the most affected and yet have the least financial and political recourse. This is a public health issue and an issue of environmental justice."

Julia Hathaway, Organizing Representative, Sierra Club

For more information about the Sierra Club’s Stop Sugar Field Burning Campaign, visit our website at You can also click here to view reports on the launch by the Palm Beach Post and the Sun Sentinel.