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Environmentalists Say Bill To Protect Farmers From Lawsuits Disenfranches Communities Impacted By Sugarcane Burning

Pictured here is a sugarcane field. A portion of it is set on fire and smoke billows up into the sky.
Philippe Prudhomme
/
Adobe Stock
Florida lawmakers are trying to make it harder to sue farmers. They say it's to prevent conflicts between existing farms and city dwellers who moved in next door. But Environmentalists fear it's actually to protect the practice of sugarcane burning in South Florida, which has resulted in a federal lawsuit.

Lawmakers put Florida's 'Right to Farm Act' into statute decades ago to protect farmers from conflicts created by new neighbors. Whether that conflict result from the smell of cow manure or the clucking of chickens, neighbors can't say the farm is a nuisance if it's been operating for a year or more and wasn't considered a nuisance when it started. There are exceptions, but those are limited.

Sen. Jason Brodeur (R-Lake Mary) wants to make it even harder for people to sue farms under the state's 'Right To Farm Act.' His bill adds "particle emissions" to the list of protected farm operations. Florida Conservation Voter's Aliki Moncrief is concerned "particle emissions" refers to the black snow that comes from sugarcane burning.

"We see it as a direct response to communities standing up trying to seek legal relief for the sugar cane burning and the legislature coming in and saying, 'oh, no, actually we want to make sure that the farming operations that burn are protected,'" Moncrief says.

A federal class-action lawsuit against Florida Crystals, the United States Sugar Corporation, and more alleges the pre-harvest burning of sugarcane in South Florida releases pollutants that cause respiratory problems.

If someone wanted to sue a farm for being a nuisance, they would have to own property within a half-mile of the farm under Brodeur's bill. In cases like the lawsuit, David Cullen with Sierra Club Florida says the smoke goes beyond a half-mile radius.

"That smoke travels for 25 miles. More than 25 miles. They're suffering respiratory conditions, and they are being harmed by this," Cullen says.

Studies based in Brazil have shown that sugar cane burning is associated with respiratory diseases, especially in children under five. Brodeur's bill specifically mentions controlled burning as a practice that may result in increased complaints. But Brodeur says his measure wouldn't affect the federal lawsuit.

"This bill is not retroactive. It's not federal. It's state. And so, this has nothing to do with those pending actions. Remember what we said, if you're not adhering to state and federal guidelines with regard to health and safety, you are still liable as a farming operation," Brodeur says.

But Cullen says Brodeur's measure would disenfranchise people in the future who are harmed by farming operations.

“They limit the possible damages not to the injuries they have suffered, not to the harm that a person suffers but only to the amount that the property that they own within that half-mile distance is diminished. So, if somebody gets sick and has to go to the hospital and has medical bills, the cost that they have to outlay for those medical bills is not considered in what they would receive," Cullen says.

If someone sues a farm for being a nuisance and loses the case, Brodeur's bill would force them to pay the farm's legal fees. Cullen says if people go against big sugar, like in the class-action lawsuit, losing could mean bankruptcy. The Florida Farm Bureau's Adam Basford says things like controlled-burning in sugarcane fields are highly regulated. And if farmers are following the rules, they need to be protected.

"Farmers and ranchers are critical, I mean, in order to have a stable food supply, we have to have domestic food production in the state—we don't want to be beholden to foreign countries and things for our food production," Basford says.

As for the pending litigation in South Florida, he says burning is an essential practice for sugarcane growers. Brodeur's measure is now heading to a vote on the Senate floor.