Do Florida lawmakers want to make it harder to sue sugar farmers?

A state senator says environmentalists are misreading his bill. They say he’s responding to a recent lawsuit.
Burned sugar cane is harvested in Clewiston in April of 2015.
Burned sugar cane is harvested in Clewiston in April of 2015. [ ANDREW WEST/THE NEWS-PRESS | TNS ]
Published Mar. 8, 2021|Updated Mar. 8, 2021

When sugar farmers burn the cane fields near her house, Debra Jones knows what to expect.

“You’ve got to sweep when it’s going, and it just bothers me breathing-wise,” she said, describing soot falling on cars and sidewalks in Pahokee. “It comes down like black rain.”

Debra Jones, 65, of Pahokee.
Debra Jones, 65, of Pahokee. [ Photo courtesy The Berman Law Group ]

Jones, 65, is one of several residents suing sugar companies, arguing that the burning hurts their health and their properties. Her lawyers say Jones’ family uses nebulizers to make breathing easier during the burning season.

The lawsuit has gained new attention this year because environmentalists say state leaders are trying to stop future challenges like it. A bill moving through the Senate, led by Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Lake Mary, would limit who can file cases for property damage to those within a half mile of a farm where a “nuisance” happens. It would also raise the standard for people to prove farmers are flouting established rules or best practices.

Jones, according to the lawsuit, lives about half a mile from cane fields; her lawyers say smoke travels farther than that.

Related: In Pahokee, football serves as a way out

“The purpose of this bill is to get Big Sugar out of a lawsuit filed because they refuse to stop smothering their neighbors with smoke for months at a time, year after year,” said David Cullen, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club Florida, at a Senate committee meeting last Thursday. “People have been harmed, but this bill will make sure that farm operations never have to pay or stop sending smoke their way.”

Brodeur said critics misunderstand or misconstrue his bill. The cane burning case “keeps coming up even though that lawsuit is federal,” he said. The legislation addresses state policy, he said, and it would not apply to past claims.

“I’m not sure the Sierra Club has ever supported a single law that I have ever run,” Brodeur said.

Senator Jason Brodeur, R- Lake Mary, embraces someone ahead of the Senate session at the Capitol in Tallahassee last Tuesday.
Senator Jason Brodeur, R- Lake Mary, embraces someone ahead of the Senate session at the Capitol in Tallahassee last Tuesday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

His goal, he said, is to expand the Right to Farm Act, which is meant to protect farmers from costly suits brought by residents who build homes near agricultural land and then complain about long-running industrial operations. Such policies emerged during the rapid development of suburbs. Florida is still booming, Brodeur said, and farming remains a key industry.

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“This is something we have to be vigilant about,” he said.

Even if the bill passes, according to Brodeur, someone could fight a farm or its burning approvals before agencies that regulate air quality or burn permitting.

“If you have something that has particulate matter that’s causing health issues, that’s going to be an EPA issue, that’s going to be a CDC issue, that’s going to be a Florida Forest Service issue,” he said.

Cane burning is authorized by the state Forest Service, under the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Agency Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat, said in a statement that she does not believe the legislation is necessary.

Environmentalists are not alone in drawing a connection between the bill and the pending cane burning case in South Florida. Senate committee staffers who researched the legislation have noted the lawsuit in their analyses.

Florida is the cradle of America’s sugar industry. Farmers burn leaves to get at the valuable part of the crop, from roughly October to May. The mayors of Pahokee, Belle Glade and South Bay called agriculture the “lifeblood” of their region’s economy in a March 4 letter asking Democratic lawmakers to back the farm bill. Staff for Belle Glade Mayor Steve B. Wilson and South Bay Mayor Joe Kyles confirmed they signed it.

“Sadly, as we’ve seen too many times previously, wealthy, out of town so-called ‘environmental’ special interest groups are claiming to know what’s best for our communities,” they wrote, joined by a pair of community advocates. “The only ‘injustice’ occurring in this issue is coming from outside groups who are claiming to know what’s best for us and are instead threatening once again to disrupt our way of life as we know it.”

Residents and activists opposed to cane burning say they do not want to end the sugar business altogether, but to force operators to use what they say are healthier practices modeled in other countries.

“That itself would do something to help the community, to help people having the asthma,” said Clover Coffie, 79, of Belle Glade, another plaintiff in the case.

Matthew Moore, their lawyer, said he thinks the bill is a response to the lawsuit, filed in 2019. Brodeur’s proposal includes “smoke” and “particle emissions” as issues to be covered under the law.

“They are basically trying to prevent any future suit like this,” Moore said.

Related: New Governor Ron DeSantis, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried no friends of Big Sugar

Among the provisions most concerning to opponents is one that could leave losing plaintiffs on the hook for farmers’ legal costs. Maria Revelles, program director for the environmental justice advocacy group Chispa Florida, said that would discourage victims of pollution from filing a suit, especially in poor communities. The people of the Glades, she said, are not new to their homes.

“Black and brown Floridians have lived in this area and worked this land for generations and are often the most impacted by air and water pollution,” she said.

Sugar cane fields burn in the Glades on May 13, 2019.
Sugar cane fields burn in the Glades on May 13, 2019. [ JOHN BISOGNANO/PALMBEACHPOST.COM | TNS ]

As the bill passed easily through the Senate’s rules committee last week, it drew support from Associated Industries of Florida, which has received millions of dollars from sugar companies, and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

The Florida Ag Coalition, with members including U.S. Sugar Corporation, Florida Crystals and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative — all defendants in the cane-burning lawsuit — also supports it.

Florida’s growth brings “new neighbors to the rural lands where food is grown,” said Nancy Stephens, chair of the Coalition, in a statement issued after the Tampa Bay Times asked sugar companies for comment. “This important bill protects the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry and the wholesome food supply on which our residents and visitors rely.”

Related: DeSantis says he won’t accept sugar money. He was endorsed by a group fueled by it.

Advocates often criticize the industry’s influence in Tallahassee. Brodeur’s political committee reported more than $1.4 million in contributions between 2019 and 2020, of which $12,500 were from U.S. Sugar and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative. The committee received another $27,500 from a group called Advancing Florida Agriculture, and $25,000 from the Associated Industries of Florida PAC, records show.

The senator rejected the idea that money had anything to do with his bill. Law firms and other special interests donate, too, he said, and he has amended the legislation multiple times, which he sees as proof he will work with those who have complaints.

“If sugar was behind this, none of that would have happened,” Brodeur said.