Florida Lawmakers Pass Bill Protecting Sugar Farms from Public Health Lawsuits

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Last week, the Florida legislature passed a bill that gives the sugar industry protection from long-term public health damage lawsuits. The Florida sugar industry says it will protect farmers from frivolous lawsuits, but opponents and many environmental groups say if it becomes law, it would grant the industry immunity from accountability. Advocates say that this new law puts vulnerable groups at higher risk and undermines the legal system altogether.  Now it is up to Governor Ron DeSantis whether to sign it — but it had overwhelming support in both houses of the Florida legislature.

Why This Matters: Sugarcane agriculture in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) has health consequences for the surrounding humans, wildlife, and environment. Traditional methods of sugar field burning, a practice used to speed up harvesting, occur from October through May, sending smoke and ash downwind to predominantly lower-income communities of color and negatively impacting health. Breathing in ash and soot can cause respiratory problems and increase the risk of severe COVID-19. The Sierra Club, which launched its Stop The Burn campaign in 2019, says that sugar field burning threatens nearby communities’ health and economic opportunity. Still, this new legislation would tilt the scales of justice in favor of agriculture.

Not So Sweet

Under the new law, only residents within one-half mile of an agricultural operation would be able to bring a claim. Even if they win the suit, they would only be compensated for a reduction in property value. That means that residents cannot seek compensation for long-term healthcare costs. Orlando Democrat Anna Eskamani explained, “if you live near the Everglades Agricultural Area and have inhaled black ash and smoke from sugar cane burning, which we are learning through research and more data that is causing long-term health problems, and you want to sue based on those grounds, if this bill becomes law, Florida legislators are essentially saying you can’t do that.”

But there is dissent within the party. Representative Matt Willhite, a Democrat from the affluent community of Wellington, which also neighbors the EAA, cited the testimony of residents and leaders who traveled to Tallahassee to support the bill and said their lack of respirators showed that the health risks were minimal (no, really). Willhite and other bill supporters say that protecting sugar operations protects jobs and income for local communities. But some local communities, advocates say, are being protected more than others already. Opponents noted that burn permits are given out when low-income communities of color are downwind of burn operations. On days that the wind flows toward affluent communities, sugar fields will cease burnings.  

Affluent (and respirator-less) residents weren’t the only ones who traveled to Tallahassee. Supporters of a class-action lawsuit against sugarcane burning were present as well. “We are talking about corporations. We’re talking about the elite class who are taking advantage of the working man and pitting us against each other,” said community organizer David Rae. “We can create jobs. We can move forward with green practices that get us to being better stewards of the land. And we can do this all while honoring the most vulnerable of our citizens.” There are tools available for alternative “green harvesting” that requires no burning, but sugarcane farms have refrained from making the switch. Now, they may have carte blanche to keep burning, as the bill waits for a signature on the Governor’s desk.

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