Lawyers from The Berman Law Group filed a lawsuit Tuesday alleging a link between controlled burns of crops by the sugar industry and health issues of surrounding residents in the Glades.
According to a group called “Sustainable Agricultural Fire Education,” those burns are done to remove leafy material from the stalks before they are harvested and moved to the mill. That group supports the process of burning, which is regulated by the Florida Forest Service (FFS).
But Tuesday’s lawsuit argues the process is dangerous to nearby residents. The law firm announced the lawsuit with a press conference at its Boca Raton office. Among those who spoke at that press conference were lead attorney Zachary West; former state Sen. Joe Abruzzo, who is now the firm’s Director of Government Relations; and former NFL running back Fred Taylor, who also works with the firm.
Frank Biden, brother of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, joined the firm as a senior adviser in July 2018. He was also present to discuss the suit Tuesday, which was the same day his brother, Joe, launched his environmental plan.
“Our request is simple, and it’s easily accomplished: Stop burning the cane,” Frank Biden said.
He was pressed on whether there was any coordination between the firm and his brother’s presidential campaign regarding the decision to announce the lawsuit Tuesday.
“There was absolutely no coordination. It was serendipitous that Joe’s environmental policy came out today,” Biden said.
“Our thoughts are the same but there was no coordination.”
The lawsuit cites several outside studies which link this type of burning to an increased rate of health problems.
When asked whether he had evidence showing an increased number of respiratory issues in the Glades attributable to the sugar cane burning, West replied, “Evidence is going to be something that’s fleshed out in discovery. The complaint is allegations, and we believe that there is support and will continue to be support for those allegations.”
West said he petitioned the court to allow for mandatory medical monitoring for those in the zip codes of Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay. He argued that monitoring would help “identify and begin to treat any health conditions that are created in that population as a result of the sugar cane burning.”
The lawsuit also seeks to reimburse any devaluation of property related to the burning from June 2015 to the present and seeks an injunction on sugar farmers to stop them from the next pre-harvest burn.
“The costs of such a program are going to be enormous,” West said.
“But it’s also important to note that it is not our intention to bankrupt the sugar industry. It is not our intention to put them out of business or to keep them from farming in that area. What we want is for them to be good neighbors to the residents.”
U.S. Sugar Spokeswoman Judy Sanchez pushed back against the lawsuit’s claims. U.S. Sugar is one of the entities named in the suit.
“We are American farmers and stand behind the safety and integrity of our farming practices, which are highly regulated and legally permitted on a daily basis by the government. Our farming practices are safe, environmentally sound, highly regulated and closely monitored,” Sanchez said.
“Fortunately, decades of independent air quality monitoring and data show that our communities, along with our counties of Palm Beach, Hendry and Glades, have some of the best air quality in the entire state, better than the state average, year after year.”
A county-by-county analysis of air pollution done by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows counties where those fields are located are cleaner than the state average.
Still, researchers stipulate that “short-term fluctuations” in counties’ air quality are not accounted for. Those burns take about 20 minutes and are done during specific parts of the year.
West also cast doubt on the effectiveness of government oversight of the process, particularly by the FFS and the Department of Health.
The Florida Forest Service is tasked with regulating those burns. Permits are only to be issued if wind flow is not pointing to a community, thus preventing potential spread of toxic material.
West said those applications are going through too quickly, but he stopped short of accusing them of any legal liability.
“The Florida Forest Service does authorize them and they seem to potentially be rubber-stamping them,” West said.
“But I’m not going to go into that any further than that at this point.”
The lawsuit does not target any government agencies, instead, it focuses in on the sugar producers themselves.
West also said they did not obtain data from the Department of Health regarding the prevalence of complaints about health issues caused by these burns in the relevant counties.
“We’re aware that there’s a Department of Health monitor that is in the area. We believe that there may be issues with that monitor and the data that it shows.”
When pressed on what issue he was alluding too, West demurred.
“I’m not prepared to talk about the issue at this point.”