A coterie of sugarcane cultivators has been hit with a proposed class action lawsuit filed by two Florida property owners who allege the companies’ pre-harvest burning of sugarcane has polluted the environment—and is to blame for an uptick in health concerns—in and aroundthe areassouth of Lake Okeechobee. The affected areas around which the complaint centers cover zip codes 33430, 33476 and 33493, which include the towns of Belle Glade, South Bay, and Pahokee, among others.
Among the lawsuit’s dozen defendants are the entities commonly referred to collectively as “Big Sugar” – Florida Crystals Corporation, U.S. Sugar and Sugar Care Growers Cooperative of Florida – due to what the case says are the companies’ production volumes, profitability and political clout. The 39-page seven-count suit, which spans allegations of negligence, liability for ultrahazardous activity and repeated, unpermitted trespass on proposed class members’ properties, claims the defendants’ pre-harvest sugarcaneburningacross roughly 400,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee has released smoke, dioxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, ammonia and other contaminants into the air and ground, damaging property values and leading to a number of medical issues.
“As a direct result of Defendant’s discharge of toxic pollutants into the air and onto the land, including the introduction of noxious smoke replete with benzene and formaldehyde created by pre-harvest burnings and blown through and deposited onto Plaintiffs’ real properties by wind and air, Plaintiffs have suffered a diminution of their property value, perhaps by as much as rendering the value of the real properties worthless.”
As the lawsuit explains it, before the defendants can harvest sugar cane stalks from their lands in Palm Beach, Glades and Hendry Counties, a procedure called pre-harvest burning must take place. Pre-harvest burning occurs between October and March each year, the lawsuit says, and is done expressly to make the harvesting and processing of sugar stalks quicker and easier, as it removes excess biomass, reduces insect and snake intrusion and increases sugar content due to water evaporation.
Generally conducted on 40 to 80 acres of land at a time, pre-harvest burns, the case continues, emit “billows of thick black smoke and a stench into the air,” as well as cause ash—the combination of which the lawsuit calls “black snow”—to rain down over surrounding areas. This black snow, the complaint says, can contain confirmed carcinogens like benzo[a]pyrene and potential carcinogens such as naphthalene, benzo[a]anthracene, as well as a slew of other hazardous compounds, including pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
The complaint alleges that black snow from the defendants’ pre-harvest burning activities is to blame for respiratory problems in workers and residents in surrounding communities. Medical concerns (and any annoyance, inconvenience and stigma) aside, pre-harvest sugarcane burning, the case says, has injured proposed class members with regard to “the market value, use value, and/or beneficial enjoyment value of their residences and/or real property owned,” as it can discolor cars, homes and office buildings.
In addition to monetary compensation, the lawsuit asks the court to implement a medical monitoring program for proposed class members in areas around Lake Okeechobee, as well as an order to stop the defendants from engaging in any burnings in the future. The suit looks to cover all property owners within Florida zip codes 33430, 33476 and 33493.