Published On: Thu, Feb 18th, 2021

FDACS Phase 2 Burning Rules Are All Smoke And Mirrors

Boca Raton, FL — On January 1, 2021, the second phase of Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried’s “improvements” to the rules that determine when and why pre-harvest sugarcane field burning can be permitted went into effect. The failure of these “improvements” to make any difference to the residents in the Glades, and the renewed call for a phase-out of pre-harvest sugarcane field burning, were addressed in a letter sent to Commissioner Fried on February 3, 2021 by community activists in and around the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA): 

February 3, 2021 

Commissioner Nikki Fried 

Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services 

Plaza Level 10, The Capitol 

400 S. Monroe St. 

Tallahassee, FL 32399-080 

RE: Stop The Burn 

As of January 1, 2021, the “phase 2” pre-harvest sugar field burning rule changes you announced on August 4, 2020, became effective. While the details of “phase 2” were not made easily available to the public between August and January, we requested those details via public records request on August 6, 2020, and received those details on January 7, 2021. After now having the benefit of reviewing the received documents, and experiencing firsthand the insignificance of these changes on the quality of life in our communities, we bring the following to your attention: 

● Sugarcane field pre-harvest burn permits are denied when wind blows in excess of 10 MPH in Zone 2 North and 12 MPH in Zone 2 South towards Eastern Palm Beach County and Eastern Martin County while sugarcane field pre-harvest burn permits are approved when wind blows in excess of 12 MPH in Zone 4 and 15 MPH in Zone 5 towards the Glades, as long as backing fires are used. 

● Backing fires are required for all burns when winds speeds are below 10 MPH in Zone 2

North and 12 MPH in Zone 2 South towards the East while backfires are only required when wind speeds exceed 12 MPH in Zone 4 and 15 MPH in Zone 5 when towards the Glades communities. 

● Wellington had a population of 23,309 in 1992 when resident complaints led to the development of wind-based regulations to increase protection for their communities.The Glades region now has a population of roughly 55,833 residents and yet the residents there remain without equal protection making referenced “improvements” related to population growth nothing but smoke and mirrors. 

● The Florida Certified Prescribed Burn Manager Training Course for EAA burners, whether or not changes were made with regard to who is trained when, has no impact on the number, intensity, or proximity of pre-harvest burns in and around the Glades. 

The “Phase 2” changes have brought no positive impact on our quality of life, no noticeable difference in the amount of smoke and ash falling on our homes and schools, and no relief from the damper falling ash has on our economic landscape. These changes have done nothing to address the historic stark, Black and White differences between how communities in Eastern Palm Beach County and the Glades have been treated by FDACS. 

The newly implemented changes do not expand the circumstances where permits blowing toxic smoke and ash toward the Glades communities would be denied, rather they only expand the circumstances where backfires must be used. What is especially cruel about this change is that backfires used on the organic muck soils prevalent in the EAA can increase the likelihood of smoldering or “muck fires.” Muck fires can increase ground-level CO and ozone production adding further health threats to surrounding communities. To add insult to injury, these muck fires further erode and degrade the vulnerable muck soils of the EAA. See here and here. 

Therefore, our review and experience throw a harsh revelatory light on your remarks of August 4, 2020, when you stated: “This second phase of prescribed burning improvements delivers on our promise to enhance public safety, reduce smoke and ash impacts for Everglades communities, and reduce the risk of wildfires.” The fact is that they do nothing of the sort. 

Fourteen months have passed without any action on your part in response to our community’s urgent plea for a burn-free buffer zone around our homes, schools, churches and businesses. Nearly a year has passed since that plea was made even more urgent by the added threat of COVID-19 to an already vulnerable population, a point made clear to you in 2020 by the medical professionals represented by the Florida Clinicians for Climate Action (FCCA), Florida Physicians for Social Responsibility (FLPSR), and Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (FLAAP). 

It is clear that protection of communities in Eastern Palm Beach and Martin Counties remains your priority while the people of the Glades are sacrificable. The environmental racism at the core of your predecessors’ response to pre-harvest burning is still at the core of yours.

The past two years of inaction or meaningless action beg a number of important questions: 

● If population density is a determining factor in who gets and does not get protection under the wind direction rules, how does FDACS reconcile the fact that the Glades region has for sometime had a population over twice that of 1992 Wellington? 

● What steps have been taken to promote a switch to green harvesting by FDACS since the August 4, 2020 press release that stated: “Commissioner Fried also continues to encourage adoption of green harvesting by working with corporate partners on the manufacturing and purchasing of sugarcane biomass?” 

● The Florida Certified Prescribed Burn Manager Training Course appears to have remained unchanged since 2014, and only references pre-harvest sugarcane burning once in passing. What if anything has changed within the Florida Certified Prescribed burn Course or training protocols or requirements that warranted mention within the “phase 2” changes? 

As constituents who are especially impacted by your administration’s policies on sugarcane burning, we expect to receive a response. We know you have interacted with groups associated with and representing the interests of the sugar industry, and so request the same attention and respect. To refuse to respond to the call for a no-burn buffer between our families and the toxic smoke and ash is unconscionable. 

We applaud the stated goals included in your “Federal Partnership Plan” announced on February 2. We urge you to (1) make the obvious connections between “regenerative agriculture,” “biomass-based renewable fuels,” “climate change mitigation,” and “environmental justice” and the switch to green harvesting; and (2) take immediate action to meet those goals for the benefit of our community members. 

………………………………………………………………………………………………..

“You would think that during a pandemic our communities could be given basic courtesy so we wouldn’t have to call and complain to the Florida Forest Service about the sugarcane burns choking our city. Commissioner Fried where are you? You have the authority to stop this. Why are we being ignored?” stated Robert Mitchell, Belle Glade resident and founder of Muck City Black Lives Matter. 

Sister Laura, Belle Glade resident, said: “There have been days this past month where the smoke has been so overwhelming that closing my windows has brought no reprieve from the stench of sugarcane burning. If Commissioner Fried got a chance to hear from us, or spend any amount of time in the Glades during the harvesting season, I doubt she would continue to claim how ‘substantial’ her Phase 2 rule improvements really are.” 

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