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Florida lawmakers pass bill to shield sugar farmers from lawsuits

For decades burning occurs from October through May each year and has been widely accepted as a necessary evil.
Acres of sugar cane burn behind homes in Belle Glade. This is part of what is called "pre-harvest burning" to remove the outer leaves of cane stalks before harvesting.
Acres of sugar cane burn behind homes in Belle Glade. This is part of what is called "pre-harvest burning" to remove the outer leaves of cane stalks before harvesting.
Published Apr. 22
Updated Apr. 23

TALLAHASSEE — Persuaded by testimony from the leaders in the Glades agriculture community that sugar burning is not harming their residents, the Florida House on Thursday sent to the governor a bill that gives the agriculture industry protection from lawsuits related to long-term health damage.

Opponents argued that the measure, (SB 88) isn’t really about protecting farmers from nuisance lawsuits as proponents claim but about giving them immunity from current and future lawsuits alleging harm. Under the bill, only people within half a mile of the agricultural operation will be able to bring a claim, and if they succeed they will be limited to compensation for only the reduction in their property values.

“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 his bill becomes law, Florida legislators are essentially saying you can’t do that,’' said Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat.

But Rep. Matt Willhite, a Democrat from Wellington, the affluent community adjacent to the Everglades farming area, said he is convinced the Glades community has experienced little harm. He cited testimony from residents and leaders who traveled to Tallahassee last week and opposed the bill because it might harm the agriculture industry they depend on.

“They were here talking to us. They weren’t on respirators,’' Willhite said. “They were talking about the multiple generations of families that grown up in this area, and that are still supporting this, and they’re still in the area. They’re not running away.”

Sugarcane farmers prepare for their harvest by burning the outer leaves of the cane stalks. Although there is a “green harvesting” alternative that requires no burning, igniting the stalks requires less equipment and makes harvesting more efficient. But it also causes smoke and plumes of soot to fall in what is commonly known as “black snow.”

For decades burning occurs from October through May each year and has been widely accepted as a necessary evil in company towns of Belle Glade, Clewiston and Pahokee, where sugar is king.

Campaign against burning

But the Sierra Club has mounted a Stop the Burn campaign and in 2019, two residents who live in Belle Glade filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that the burning has diminished their property values, caused long-term respiratory problems, and prevented the area from growing economically. The lawsuit cites health studies and data to support their argument. The sugar industry cites other studies to support its claim that the air quality there is no worse than other parts of the state.

Willhite said that sugar is a billion dollar business for Florida and in Palm Beach County. “This bill is important, the farming operations are important,’' he said. “If we drive some of these industries out of our backyard, they have no place to go.”

Opponents noted that other residents from the Glades also traveled to Tallahassee, including those who support a class-action lawsuit alleging harm from sugarcane burning. For decades the practice has been widely accepted as a necessary evil in company towns of Belle Glade, Clewiston and Pahokee where sugar is king.

But in 2019, two residents who live in Belle Glade filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that the burning that occurs from October through May each year has diminished their property values, caused long-term respiratory problems, and prevented the area from growing economically. The lawsuit cites health studies and data to support their argument. The sugar industry cites other studies to support its claim that the air quality there is no worse than other parts of the state.

“This is about access to the courts,’' said Rep. Omari Hardy, a West Palm Beach Democrat. “It basically shuts down an entire branch of government when someone brings a claim against an industry because we think the industry is important. And that is a precedent that I don’t think should be set.”

Senate president’s top priority

Passage of the bill was a top priority of Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican who owns an egg farm and is considering running for agriculture commissioner next year.

Florida’s powerful sugar industry spent more than $11 million on Florida campaigns in the 2020 cycle, according to records provided by the Florida Division of Elections and analyzed by the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau.

And while much of it was routed through the political committees run by Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which then distributed it to legislators and their committees, more than $680,000 can be traced to contributions to the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, led Simpson.

The Senate passed the measure 37-1 on March 18 with only Senate Democratic Leader Gary Farmer of Lighthouse Point voting no. On Thursday, the House approved it 110-7 and it will be up to Gov. Ron DeSantis to reject it or sign it into law.

The stated intention of the bill is to expand Florida’s “Right to Farm Act,” which attempts to stop so-called “nuisance lawsuits” from disrupting farming operations. The act was intended to shield farmers as residential development started encroaching on the rural areas of the state.

The measure now add agri-tourism, such as you-pick-’em operations, field mazes and farm tours, to the list of protected agriculture operations. It also makes lawsuits harder to file and more difficult to win.

Proponents argued that the state has hundreds of proscribed burns in agricultural areas and they do not cause harm. Opponents countered that those prescribed fires don’t happen for eight months in a row as sugar burning does.

Opponents also raised the argument that on days when the wind is blowing toward more of the wealthier affluent communities of Palm Beach County, they don’t burn, but when the smoke is staying in the working-class residential areas of the Glades, they don’t stop. And they argued that green harvesting is used in parts of Florida near grocery stores, to avoid affecting shoppers.

Hardy attempted to get legislators to amend the bill to assure there would be no retroactive attempt at using the legislation to end the lawsuit, but it was rejected in the House.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, called the bill “a labor of love” for Simpson.

He spoke to Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Lecanto dermatologist, and Rep. Erin Grall, a Vero Beach lawyer, and added: “I’ve often said, Dr. Massullo, that occasionally you need a doctor, I’ve said on occasion, Representative Grall, sometimes you need a lawyer, but you do need a farmer — three times a day.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKla

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