Monday, August 27, 2018

Sierra Club Comments on the draft plan for the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project

On August 20, 2018, Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity submitted comments to the US Army Corps of Engineers on the Draft Integrated Project Implementation Report (PIR) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP). Our goal is to drastically improve the plan for water storage and treatment north of the lake. Click here for a pdf of our comment letter to USACE. See pasted below.

Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) bloom on Lake Okeechobee as seen July 2, 2016 by Landsat 8 satellite.
Photo credit: NASA Earth Observatory

August 20, 2018

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Jacksonville District

RE:  Comments on the Draft PIR and EIS for Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project

On behalf of Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, we submit the following comments on the Draft Integrated Project Implementation Report (PIR) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP).

Our organizations believe that ecosystem restoration projects in the Lake Okeechobee Watershed are important components of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). They are important: (1) for the health of the Lake Okeechobee ecosystem and its watershed; (2) to improve the quality, timing, and quantity of freshwater flows to the northern estuaries; and (3) for the redirection of freshwater from the lake to where it is most needed, south towards to the Everglades and Florida Bay. To that end, we offer the comments below with the goal of seeing the LOWRP Tentatively Selected Plan (TSP) improved.

1. We support the wetland restoration of the Paradise Run and Kissimmee River Center sites (in Option B), which would restore about 5,300 acres to wetlands. However, there is an opportunity that should not be missed within the LOWRP to restore more wetlands. As stated in the Draft PIR/EIS, “about 330,000 acres of wetlands have been lost in the LOWRP area” and “more wetland acres restored would generally be better” (Draft PIR/ EIS, Appendix E, Attachment B). As described in the Draft PIR/EIS, the Lake Okeechobee West site (included in Option C) has a high restoration potential because it is primarily improved and unimproved pasture, with scattered freshwater marsh and wet prairie wetlands.  The costs per acre for wetland restoration between Options B and C are similar. We do not agree with leaving out this excellent restoration site from further consideration just because it is not in “better ecological quality.” We ask SFWMD and USACE to modify the TSP to include Option C, which would restore 2,800 additional acres of high value wetland habitat for a total of 8,100 acres (a small figure in comparison to the 300,000 acres of lost natural wetlands). The restoration of more wetlands will also provide additional opportunity for water quality improvements.

2. The goals of the CERP component referred to as "Lake Okeechobee Watershed Water Quality Treatment Facilities (OPE)" included not only wetland restoration, but also stormwater treatment areas to "retain phosphorus before flowing into Lake Okeechobee" (CERP Yellow Book, p. 9-4). The CERP Yellow Book makes it clear that an essential aspect of Everglades restoration is the inclusion of water quality features.  We strongly disagree with the assumption stated in the draft PIR/ EIS that "the water flowing into CERP features will be, at a minimum, in compliance with applicable standards" (Draft PIR/EIS, section 3.4.1). This will not be the case unless water quality features are added to the LOWRP. Therefore, we request that USACE reconsider and include water quality features that are essential to Everglades restoration and improve the health of Lake Okeechobee.

3. We have concerns about the proposed Wetland Attenuation Feature (WAF), a type of feature not proposed before in CERP.  While we support shallower surface water storage over deeper storage for any component of CERP, we oppose the use of Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) wells to operate this feature as it is contrary to the restoration of the Everglades. According to the Draft PIR/EIS, while the WAF is primarily intended to attenuate peak flows into Lake Okeechobee, it also states that it "will create emergent wetland habitat…more natural hydrologic conditions, and improved habitat for fish and wildlife resources" (Draft PIR/EIS, pg. ES-7). However, Figure C-88 in Appendix C (see below) suggests that water in the WAF will be 3 to 3.5 ft. deep about 45% of the time and about 0.5 ft. another 45% of the time. This would mean that the change in water stage would be very drastic during the other 10% of the year, rapidly filling or emptying.  This kind of hydroperiod transition does not provide for healthy wetland ecological function, even within an emergent wetland environment. The forty ASRs proposed to assist the operation of this feature would be like a form of permanent artificial “life support,” creating a wetland stuck in an Intensive Care Unit.

4. Instead of the proposed WAF, we strongly recommend that this feature be modified and modeled as a water quality feature, such as a Stormwater Treatment Area (STA) and/or a Flow Equalization Basin (FEB). This will help in significantly reducing nutrient loading to Lake Okeechobee and will also reduce the level of nutrients discharged to the northern estuaries. Reducing the level of nutrients into Lake Okeechobee is essential to Everglades restoration and should not be omitted from this important CERP project. Nutrient loads to Lake Okeechobee must be reduced and LOWRP can be designed to provide such a reduction.  The USACE’s stated current policy of not cost sharing on water quality features should be reconsidered and modified; CERP goals make it clear these features are essential to Everglades restoration.  Even if the federal government does not cost-share, whether because of administrative policy or legislation, it is still incumbent on the state to provide a locally preferred alternative that includes water quality features. Therefore, we urge USACE and SFWMD to modify this feature so it provides what the ecosystem needs, clean water for the heart of the Everglades.

5. We oppose the use of ASRs in CERP as contrary to the goals of Everglades restoration. ASRs waste public funding that is needed for actual ecosystem restoration. It is particularly troubling that half of the eighty ASR wells proposed in the TSP will inject water into the Avon Park Permeable Zone (APPZ) where water recovery is estimated at only 30%.  We cannot support the wasting of freshwater via ASR wells when we have an urgent need to increase the flows of clean freshwater to the Everglades and Florida Bay, to replenish the Biscayne Aquifer in South Florida and to hold back saltwater intrusion.

6. We applaud the USACE for rejecting the use of deep injection wells; deep injection wells are inconsistent with the goals of Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). In fact, the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2000, which authorized CERP, included a provision that CERP shall be implemented to ensure “the reduction of the loss of fresh water” from the South Florida ecosystem. Most recently, SFWMD stated in a June 1, 2018 letter to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works that the "Water wasted to tide in the Northern Estuaries is THE water needed to restore the Quantity, Quality, Timing and Distribution of water within the Everglades system."

7. The Draft PIR/EIS does not clearly articulate how much each component in the TSP contributes to the reduction of harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee and to keeping lake stages within the ecologically-preferred stage envelope. We hereby request the percentage of the benefit for the wetland restoration sites, WAF, Upper Floridan Aquifer ASRs, APPZ ASRs, and lake operational changes.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide these comments. The above list is not a comprehensive coverage of our concerns. For instance, with regard to ASRs, it is unclear what exactly is meant by the storage volume of approximately 448,000 ac-ft. per year from ASRs, what portion of the injected water is recoverable for the natural system, and how fast water can be recovered during a drought.  In as much, we look forward to providing additional input on an ongoing basis as the process proceeds.


Diana Umpierre, AICP
Organizing Representative, Sierra Club

Jaclyn Lopez
Florida Director, Center for Biological Diversity

Friday, August 24, 2018

Sierra Club Belle Glade Office Grand Opening!

New front door!
On Saturday, August 11, 2018, we celebrated a new and exciting phase of Sierra’s work in South Florida with the grand opening of our Belle Glade office in western Palm Beach County. Sierra Club is the first environmental non-profit to open an office in the Glades, within the Everglades Agricultural Area and by the shores of the water heart of South Florida and the Everglades - Lake Okeechobee.  

The office was packed with sixty-six  partners, local activists, and new friends from across Florida. Attendees shared stories, ate food prepared by a local activist Kina Phillips, and heard presentations from Belle Glade and South Bay activists and Sierra Club organizing staff.  After the program many took a guided tour of the surrounding community and the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee.

Patrick welcomes all 
Stop Sugar Field Burning Campaign Organizer Patrick Ferguson kicked off the presentations with an introduction encouraging attendees to explore how the office can be used as a collaborative space for individuals and organizations seeking to have a positive impact on the Glades. Then the real heart of the program began with words of wisdom, encouragement and solidarity from three local leaders of the Stop Sugar Field Burning Campaign:

Jam-packed with organizers, activists leaders, and new friends!
Kina Phillips, a local community organizer and small business owner, gave a powerful presentation on how pre-harvest sugar field burning has negatively impacted the people of the Glades and what drove her to fight for environmental justice in western Palm Beach County. She described how her grandson's need to use a breathing machine during the burning season inspired her to speak out against the practice which threatens the health of so many of her neighbors. Kina finished by entreating all to join the fight for clean water here in the water heart of the Everglades.

Steve Messam in action.
Steve Messam, a local entrepreneur and minister, echoed a similar story about how his family's health, especially his young son's health, suffers during the burning season. Steve described the negative economic impacts pre-harvest sugar field burning brings, including the costs residents shoulder during burning season to clean up the “black snow” (ash) and soot off of their property. He introduced many in the crowd to the alternative to burning called “green harvesting” which can bring new economic opportunity to the Glades.  He explained that if sugarcane “trash” (the leaves and tops) wasn’t sent up in smoke, it could be used to make electricity and products such as biochar, mulch, tree-free paper products, ethanol, and more.  He called on sugar growers to use this currently wasted “trash” to create jobs instead of pollution.

Shanique Scott, former Mayor of the City of South Bay and local business owner, railed against the injustice of pre-harvest sugar field burning.  She shared how many Glades residents are faced with having to move away from the community they love because of the health impacts and how this campaign is a fight over what is right and what is wrong. She described how she witnesses first hand how her dance students’ respiratory health is impacted during the burning season.  She spoke of how responsible she feels for the well being of the young people she teaches and her hope for a smoke-free future in her beloved hometown. 

Sierra Club Everglades Restoration Campaign Organizer Diana Umpierre drew everyone in to imagine a new “Nearby Nature in the Glades” initiative that will be based at the new office and will work with parents, teachers, and community activists to give kids and their families the opportunity to explore, enjoy and protect the natural environment in and around the Glades.  She finished by reminding all of the starry night sky in the Glades - a treasure urban South Floridians do not get at home - and encouraged all to wait until dark and look up into the heavens to catch the Perseid meteor shower.

After the tour!
The highlight of the event might have been the tour of the surrounding community led by local activists. A caravan of vans and cars drove by the homes, schools, and businesses that are so directly affected by pre-harvest sugar field burning and passed by many sites key to the current and potential future socioeconomic status of the Glades:  migrant worker housing, a sugar mill, Glades Central High School, Herbert Hoover Dike, Torry Island on the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee, and more.

All our guests were invited to leave a message on our wall - we hope you can come make your mark too! We welcome existing and new partners to join us.  The Grand Opening was a great start for what is sure to be a collaborative space and hub for the growing grassroots movement for environmental justice. What are we fighting for?  Clean water to drink and play in, safe and healthy places to live, equity, justice, and economically and environmentally sustainable                        jobs for all!  
                                      All Photos By Lomiekia Messam

Monday, August 6, 2018

Sierra Club's Comments on the Draft EIS for SFWMD's EAA Reservoir plan

On July 24, 2018, Sierra Club, along with Friends of the Everglades and Bullsugar Alliance, submitted comments to the US Army Corps of Engineers on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the SFWMD Section 203 EAA Reservoir/Stormwater Treatment Area (STA) study. Click here for a pdf of our comment letter to USACE. Below, is what we said.

Sawgrass prairies in the central Everglades/ Photo Credit: Mac Stone

July 24, 2018
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Jacksonville District

RE:  Comments on the Draft EIS for the SFWMD Section 203 EAA Reservoir/STA Study

On behalf of Sierra Club, Friends of the Everglades, and Bullsugar Alliance, we submit the following comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Section 203 Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) and Stormwater Treatment Area (STA) study.

Our organizations believe the EAA Reservoir is an integral component of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) that, if adequately planned, designed and constructed, can help solve South Florida’s ongoing water crisis and restore the globally unique and invaluable Everglades ecosystem, including Everglades National Park and Florida Bay. To that end, we desire to support and advance an EAA Reservoir project that provides the long-term ecosystem restoration benefits that both people and the natural system need, especially in light of the challenges South Florida faces with sea level rise and other climate changes, and that meets, with greater certainty, all applicable water quality standards. We also want to support a restoration project that does not pose unnecessary risk to the people and properties in and near the EAA and downstream of the project area.

We offer the comments below with the goal of seeing the SFWMD recommended plan (Alternative C240A) improved.  Our comments are meant to address our concerns; they also echo a number of the concerns expressed by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works (ASA) and the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in their May 2018 Review Assessment of the SFWMD’s recommended plan as described in their Section 203 Post Authorization Change Report (PACR), Integrated Feasibility Study and Draft Environmental Impact Statement (March 2018, amended May 2018):

1.      When the Florida Legislature passed Senate Bill 10 (SB 10) in 2017 (Chapter 2017-010, Florida Laws), it was not its intent to take away the ability for SFWMD to analyze alternatives with a larger land footprint. SB 10 did not prohibit the modeling of project alternatives with private lands from owners that at the time of SFWMD’s scoping phase had expressed no interest to sell or swap lands.  Therefore, other possible alternatives should be evaluated as they might produce a project that is more economically feasible, safer, carries less uncertainty in cost and benefits, and provides greater ecological benefits. It is in the public interest, and certainly in the federal interest, to study the feasibility of other less land-restricted alternatives.

2.      The study should include the feasibility of alternatives with reservoir options that are between six (6) and twelve (12) feet in water depth (depths that had been proposed in in 2000 and 2006) and that provide a minimum 240,000 acre-feet of water storage.

3.      There is no legitimate reason to limit the feasibility study to alternatives within lands in state ownership in the A-1 and A-2 parcels and just west of A-2; nothing, including the removal of the eminent domain option in SB 10, imposed such a limitation. The study was overly restrictive in assuming that none of the current private landowners, in areas that could provide a more optimal footprint, would be willing to sell or swap land by the time the project is ready for the Pre-Construction Engineering and Design (PED) phase.  Economics, politics, and other factors could motivate some of them to re-consider and sell or swap their lands with other state-owned land holdings. For instance, the state currently leases several thousand acres of land within or near the EAA with soils that are favorable to agriculture. It is premature to assume that no additional land can be acquired while the project is in the planning phase.

4.      The SFWMD’s work that led to the 2006 Revised Draft Integrated Project Implementation Report (PIR) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Storage Reservoirs project, which had recommended a 12-ft deep reservoir, should be considered as an alternative.

5.      All alternatives presented in the SFWMD feasibility study should include sufficient land to treat water to meet applicable water quality standards with a high degree of certainty. We share the concern stated in the ASA Review Assessment that the proposed project “poses a significantly high risk in feasibility, design, and construction in terms of cost and performance of a water quality treatment facility. This poses a significant risk that once constructed, the flows into the Everglades from this project will not meet water quality standards, and the project flows will be reduced significantly to meet those standards”.

6.      At this time we agree with the SFWMD decision to not re-purpose the existing A-1 Flow Equalization Basin (FEB) into either a reservoir or an STA as part of their recommended plan.  Based on its current performance, the A-1 FEB is an important component of the Restoration Strategies Regional Water Quality Plan that is already operational.  Meeting the Water Quality Based Effluent Limit (WQBEL) of the EAA STAs is of the utmost importance and there is land, other than the A-1, that should be utilized.

7.      In the draft EIS and the SFWMD Section 203 report, the terms “CERP goal(s)” and “restoration target(s)” are referenced often to state how well the SFWMD recommended plan achieves or approaches them. These terms should be better explained for the benefit of a wide range of stakeholders, including decision makers, who may not be familiar with the technical aspects of how CERP is implemented and evaluated.  If these numerical goals and targets are not clearly defined in the CERP Yellow Book, then the EIS needs to clearly articulate how and when these goals and targets were defined (including appropriate document references). It should also be clearer for the benefit of all stakeholders whether these goals and targets represent “interim” values versus final values.

8.      We agree with the USACE statement that “CERP identifies capacity for 360,000 acres [ft] of storage south of Lake Okeechobee, for Component G. Considering anything short of 360,000 acre [ft] storage option a final action could limit achievement of CERP goals related to Component G” (Section 3.1, draft EIS). As referenced in the draft EIS, the SFWMD Section 203 report has stated that its preferred alternative is “the final step,” instead of “the next increment,” towards implementation of Component G. Sierra Club agrees that the SFWMD recommended plan should not be considered the final increment of surface storage within the EAA.

9.      It is not clear in the draft EIS, nor in the SFWMD Section 203 report, what the basis for SFWMD’s assertion is that their preferred alternative is also the final implementation of the following CERP components. Clarification is needed with supporting details:
§  Flow to Northwest and Central WCA 3A (Component II)
§  Environmental Water Supply Deliveries to the St. Lucie Estuary (Component C)
§  Environmental Water Supply Deliveries to the Caloosahatchee Estuary (Component E)

10.  We are pleased to see that the SFWMD’s recommended plan provides a significant improvement of freshwater flows to the Everglades, above what CEPP was scheduled to provide, particularly during the dry season, from an average of approximately 210,000 ac-ft to 370,000 ac-ft annually.

11.  The draft EIS states that, based on modeling with the 41-year period of record (1965-2005), the SFWMD preferred alternative (C240A) “meets” the CERP goal for average annual flows to the central Everglades. As stated, this is a great concern as this erroneously implies that the approximate 370,000 ac-ft increase in average annual flows to the central Everglades (via the C240A alternative) will be enough to meet the freshwater needs of South Florida’s ecosystems. The 2014 CEPP PIR stated that since the formulation of CERP, published studies “estimate that the northern inflow to the Everglades was an average of two million acre-feet (ac-ft) annually” (pg.3-3). The 2014 CEPP PIR (pg. 3-9) also states that “new science demonstrates that the need for flows passing through EAA is even higher than envisioned in CERP. This suggests that storage greater than 360,000 ac-ft, and necessary treatment, is likely needed if CERP goals and objectives are going to be fully achieved.”  Amplifying this concern is the fact that the modeling performed by SFWMD did not take into account the greater freshwater flows that will be needed to cope with climate changes already taking place, and accelerating, including sea level rise.

12.  SB 10 had been introduced and passed in recognition that high-volume freshwater discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries must be resolved. Therefore, project alternatives should provide significantly more reductions of these high-volume discharges above what the previously authorized CEPP and other authorized projects will provide (also referred to as Future Without, or FWO).  Based on the information presented in Sections 3 and 4 of the draft EIS, the SFWMD C240A alternative, while it provides some added relief to both estuaries, the reductions are relatively minor in comparison to those provided by already authorized projects. To re-establish stable health to these estuaries more significant high-volume discharge reductions are needed.  For instance, as noted in the model output figure below for the Caloosahatchee estuary, the high-volume discharges (with mean monthly flows above 2800 cfs) are only reduced by 9 months beyond the 22 months anticipated with CEPP and other authorized projects (FWO) (Figures 3-3, Tables 3-7 and 4-1, draft EIS). This still leaves 61 months of harmful discharges within the 41-yr period record. Again, while any relief to the estuaries is welcomed, project alternatives that provide higher benefits to the estuaries are needed.

13.  The draft EIS does not clearly indicate to stakeholders what percentages related to reducing damaging discharges to the northern estuaries are benefits that were already predicted to be realized by CEPP versus those gained by SFWMD’s recommended plan.  The EIS should not make this ambiguous, particularly to the decision makers that need to evaluate the lift the recommended plan would provide. For instance, the draft EIS states (pg. 4-1)  “compared to the No Action Alternative, the Recommended Plan provides an overall 55% reduction in discharge volumes and a 63% reduction in the number of discharge events to the Northern Estuaries from Lake Okeechobee, in conjunction with other authorized projects.” For clarity and transparency, the report needs to include the portions of those percentages that are being realized by the recommended plan.

14.  According the ASA Review Assessment of SFWMD’s Section 203 report, the USACE, by May 2018, was scheduled to complete a climate change analysis required for feasibility studies in accordance with USACE policies. The results of that analysis, and the impacts to project benefits and the cost of SFWMD’s recommended plan, need to be included in the EIS.

15.  According to the draft EIS, SFWMD’s recommended plan provides only minor benefits to nearshore Florida Bay (via Taylor Slough). This again highlights the need for alternatives that more meaningfully improve hypersalinity conditions in Florida Bay.

16.  We agree with the concerns raised in the ASA Review Assessment in regards to analysis of potential failure modes, consequences of failure/life loss, and seepage analysis. These types of analyses are critical to ensure the stated ecological benefits of this project will be fully realized, to reduce risk in project costs, and to ensure the project is properly designed for the safety of people and property within and near the EAA and downstream of the project. According to the ASA report:  “USACE has identified that there is significant risk that the 34% cost contingency currently in the cost estimate will not cover the additional cost associated with the likely design changes required to meet all standards after the proper analysis is completed… [USACE] identifies the submitted SFWMD recommended “tentatively selected plan” as presenting a “high” implementation and cost growth risk.” This analysis should not be left to the PED phase due to the stated high risk that the estimated project cost contingency may not be enough.

17.  The timeframe provided to external agencies for the Agency Technical Review (ATR) was extremely tight and particularly unfair to the local government agencies within the study area that were invited to participate. It is our understanding that the ATR kick off meeting was held Friday, February 16, 2018, just before the President’s Day holiday, and that participants were asked to provide written comments by noon on Monday, February 26, 2018 (five business days later). This likely explains why only one county (Broward) provided written comments. In fact, in their comments Broward County (Carolina Maran) stated that “the established time frame was insufficient to provide the extensive review required for this type of document.”  Given the importance of this project to South Florida, adequate time should have been allocated to allow for careful review of the draft report and for meaningful input before SFWMD issued their final Section 203 report.

18.  While public scoping meetings were held in later 2017 by SFWMD in West Palm Beach and Clewiston, they were inadequate in scope and timing.  In addition, the SFWMD was repeatedly unresponsive to stakeholder information requests and questions. For example, Sierra Club submitted written scoping comments and questions to SFWMD on: November 22, 2017; February 9, 2018; February 22, 2018; and February 29, 2018 but received no responses. Please also note that the SFWMD neither included Sierra Club’s pertinent correspondence nor addressed our questions and comments within their Section 2013 PACR report. 

19.  Neither SFWMD nor USACE provided meaningful and accessible NEPA-compliant in-person public participation in the stakeholder process to all those that stand to benefit, or be impacted, by this project. While public meetings were held in West Palm Beach, Clewiston, Fort Myers, and Stuart, both agencies failed to provide any public participation opportunities south of the reservoir project where restored water flows are intended to flow.  In particular, residents of Miami-Dade and Monroe counties (where Everglades National Park and Florida Bay are located) were not afforded equal representation and equal opportunity for public engagement. This fact should be acknowledged in the EIS. The Southeast Florida region experiences significant traffic congestion during the times that SFWMD and USACE conducted its public hearings; as a result, hosting meetings in just the northern-most part of the project area was a barrier to public engagement that should have been avoided. We raised this concern several times because webcast recordings and SFWMD Governing Board meetings did not provide the kind of accessible, quality and open public engagement that others in the northern parts of the project area were afforded.

The above list is not a comprehensive coverage of our concerns but we look forward to providing additional comments on an ongoing basis as the process proceeds.  Thank you for the opportunity to provide these comments.


Diana Umpierre
Organizing Representative, Sierra Club

Alan Farago
Vice President - Conservation, Friends of the Everglades

Alex Gillen
Policy Director, Bullsugar Alliance

Thursday, August 2, 2018

TB Times' Bill Maxwell on Stop Sugar Field Burning Campaign

June 3, 2018

Bill Maxwell, Opinion Columnist, Tampa Bay Times


This town’s motto is "Her Soil is Her Fortune." The soil, called "muck," is the moist, dark earth where sugarcane thrives. Also called "black gold," the soil does indeed provide a financial fortune for the growers who have powerful influence on lawmakers and other important leaders.

The bittersweet irony is Big Sugar uses a process called "pre-harvest burning" to make its fortune. 

From October to April or May, the companies ignite huge fires in their fields to burn off so-called "trash," the outer leaves of the cane stalks, before harvesting.

The fires send billows of smoke and stench into the air. Ash rains down over four counties.

Impoverished residents of the western Everglades Agricultural Area, mostly low-income African-Americans and foreign temporary laborers, call the falling ash "black snow."

A small group of activists began meeting to find ways to encourage sugar growers to switch to "green harvesting," the use of machines and human labor rather than fire.

Hardly anyone listened to them or took them seriously.

Steve Messam, 35, one of the activists and an associate pastor at Glades Covenant Community Church in South Bay, was born in Belle Glade. He grew up taking his heavy breathing and allergy flare-ups for granted. Many neighbors and schoolmates had the same symptoms.  When he went to college in Michigan, his respiratory ailments disappeared. But when he returned for Christmas each year, his ailments also returned. Today, his wife and 4-year-old son have similar problems. His son uses a breathing machine during the burn season.

Messam said that in addition to causing medical problems, the emissions negatively impact residents’ quality of life. Homeowners are especially plagued by inconveniences and unnecessary expenses.

"There’s nothing like opening your door and being greeted by ash rushing into your home and over your body or going outside and seeing your car covered with it," he said. "I have to pressure clean my doors and porch at least once a year."  His home air conditioner filters should last three months or more, but he changes them monthly during the burn season.

"Pre-harvest burning is like having a bad next door neighbor who takes all his trash from his yard and throws it across the fence into your yard," he said. "We’re paying to clean up someone else’s trash."
Former South Bay Mayor Shanique Scott said she sees relatives and friends suffering from asthma, migraines and sinus and respiratory problems that worsen during burn season.

"When I walk out my front door, I see the black snow and smell the pollution," she said. "I’m appalled to see clouds of billowing smoke, not knowing if a neighbor’s home is on fire or if it’s just another day of sugarcane burning. I have difficulty breathing during the burning season."

Teachers such as Mariya Feldman share Scott’s experiences and outrage. Feldman, who has a master’s degree in environmental science, taught for two years in Pahokee, which is surrounded by cane fields and has a sugar refinery nearby.  She said most of her students showed symptoms of asthma during burn season.

"I had two students who would wear garbage bags over their heads to get to the school bus because of the burnings," she said. "I have spoken to parents who are angry that their children aren’t getting help from the exposure to the smoke. I spoke off-the-record to scientists and even with officials who told me these burnings are archaic. Ash falls in the school parking lot. Some days, it was unbearable for me to go from my car to the school because the smell from the burning would give me cramps in my lungs."

Feldman visited the U. S. Department of Agriculture in Palm Beach County on two consecutive days for answers, but no one was available to speak with her. She emailed sugarcane officials, but no one granted her an interview. She complained to the fire department. An official promised to "look into it." She called the Sheriff’s Office and was dismissed as being "naive" for accusing Big Sugar of harming the environment, she said.

Local community activists, seeking attention for their cause, became hopeful after learning about a press conference in which the possible link between sugarcane burning and human health was a topic. Shortly afterward, the grassroots Stop the Burn campaign was initiated.

Sugar growers have accused the Sierra Club and the Stop the Burn campaign of trying to end agriculture south of Lake Okeechobee. They point out that they receive burn permits from the Florida Forest Service, and that air quality is good in counties such as Glades, Hendry and Palm Beach.

"Neither the Sierra Club nor local activists involved in the campaign want to destroy the sugar industry," said Patrick Ferguson of the Sierra Club. "A shift to green harvesting would benefit the industry in the long-term rather than put them out of business. Investing in the infrastructure to utilize the trash, instead of wasting it, would create more local jobs and provide new sources of revenue for sugar growers. Green harvesting is a win-win-win."

June 29, 2018

Bill Maxwell, Opinion Columnist, Tampa Bay Times

When I was told Chris King, a Democratic candidate for governor, would visit Belle Glade to meet local activists who are trying to persuade sugarcane farmers to change their pre-harvesting method, I wondered why he would invite the ire of the powerful industry.

Belle Glade, south of Lake Okeechobee, is one of Florida’s poorest towns. Agricultural and conservative, it has a population of roughly 19,000. Only about 10 percent is white, and the median household income is $26,859.

Running a serious campaign for governor requires millions of dollars. King, a 39-year-old Harvard-educated Democrat and business owner, will not find much money in Belle Glade and in two other nearby towns, South Bay and Pahokee, together nicknamed The Muck.

"I traveled to Belle Glade," King said, "because I wanted to better understand the communities that live there, the challenges they face from sugarcane burning and why few leaders in our state have tried to understand this issue and figure out if there’s a better way forward. For seven to eight months a year, and six to seven days a week, this community is on fire. I came away astonished, incredibly concerned and angry."

He is referring to pre-harvest burning, Big Sugar’s method of igniting huge fires in their fields to burn off so-called "trash," the outer leaves of the cane stalks, before harvesting. Activists want growers to switch to "green harvesting," using machines and human labor instead of fire.

"Before my visit, I was aware that this was one of Florida’s areas of greatest poverty and shameful treatment, but I don’t think that prepared me for what I saw there," King said. "I’ve done charitable work in countries experiencing dire poverty across the world, but I never expected to view similar conditions in Palm Beach County. It unnerved me that in a county with tremendous wealth and resources, that prosperity has not been shared with the people who are helping to generate it."
Most news outlets that cover the area focus on environmental problems such as water levels in Lake Okeechobee and algae blooms in once-pristine waterways flowing east and west.

King said he wanted to know more after hearing about human health problems that are rarely addressed objectively.  "I learned that sugarcane burning has had real public health consequences for the families that live around the lake," King said. "Residents shared with me generations of concerns about respiratory illness, asthma and associated health problems from the air quality. I also learned they live in the one community in Florida where it snows seven months of the year thanks to the ash from sugarcane burning."

From October to April or May, pre-harvest burning sends up billows of toxic smoke and stench that come down over four counties. Local residents call the falling ash from the process "black snow."
Since King will not grab many voters in The Muck, I asked him to explain what he hoped to gain from the visit.

He said few politicians acknowledge the "extraordinary poverty" in the area, and even fewer have the courage to take on Big Sugar, the industry that has created some of the very conditions residents face.

"What’s happening in Belle Glade is at the intersection of race, poverty and environmental neglect and justice, and our state has turned a blind eye to the public health and economic impacts of sugar cane burning," he said. "Since my visit, I’ve asked myself why, and it’s because one industry, sugar, has a vise grip on Florida politics."

If elected, he said he would make "substantial efforts" to get the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to conduct research and publish the findings on the public health effects of sugarcane burning on communities around Lake Okeechobee.

"The issue in Belle Glade and other communities around the lake is that the sugar industry has told us that if we begin using green technologies and innovation on pre-harvest burning, which are proven to be better for people, we will hurt the economy. I reject that premise and false choice."

July 15, 2018

Florida’s land of black snow | Bill Maxwell column, July 1

Don’t burn sugar cane, period

In this column, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris King got a lot of things right about how sugarcane burning negatively impacts the Glades communities with one enormous caveat: The outdated, toxic and unjust practice of pre-harvest sugar field burning in and around the Everglades Agricultural Area should be stopped rather than studied. No one in the Glades should continue to experience the six to eight months of smoke and ash, the already well-documented threats to public health, the cost of clean-up or the limitations burning puts on the local economy, while the practice is studied.

It is time to apply the rules for eastern Palm Beach County residents (no burning when the wind blows toward eastern Palm Beach County) to everyone (no burning when the wind blows in any direction). That means stop burning, period.

We know there is an alternative to burning because Florida’s sugar producers already use "green harvesting" when it is convenient for them. We also know green harvesting is used by the world’s largest sugarcane producers. Studying the practice in Florida would just kick the resolution can down the road and prolong the ill effects of sugar field burning on some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

If you want to study something, then study how much valuable vegetative material has gone up in smoke every year that could have otherwise been used to create jobs in the Glades and even more profit for sugar producers. Be a good neighbor, Big Sugar, and stop blowing smoke.

Patrick Ferguson, Belle Glade
The writer is the Sierra Club organizing representative for the Stop Sugar
Field Burning Campaign.