“A Complete Failure of the State”: Authorities Didn’t Heed Researchers’ Calls to Study Health Effects of Burning Sugar Cane
For years, residents in the Glades area of west central Florida have breathed smoke from sugar cane fires, set six months of every year as a pre-harvest practice. Locals call the ash that rains down on the community during burning season “black snow.” While sugar companies and regulators offer assurances that the air is safe, The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica used their own monitoring equipment to show repeated spikes in pollution on days when the state had authorized cane burning. Experts were concerned, saying the short-term spikes, which often reached four times the average pollution levels in the area, posed both short- and long-term health risks. Until the news investigation, state regulators had done little to address residents’ concerns in the Glades while taking steps to reduce the smoke burden for the wealthier, whiter communities east of the cane fields after residents there complained. The reporters also traveled to Brazil, where São Paulo officials have largely phased out burning after residents voiced concerns similar to those of the Floridians. After the news organizations started asking questions, Florida’s Health and Environmental Protection departments replaced a faulty air quality monitor and pledged to help enforce Clean Air Act standards. Moreover, The Post-ProPublica investigation prompted new federal research efforts that will expand the network of air sensors in the Glades and examine local health trends. Judge Laura Helmuth, editor in chief of Scientific American, said the team’s spotlight on agricultural practices in Brazil as a model for reducing air pollution “was refreshing because the typical script is to cover the Global South as a source of environmental problems rather than solutions.” Judge Richard Harris, long-time science reporter for NPR, said the reporting team “took extraordinary steps to explore an important health hazard that primarily harms disadvantaged people. They worked closely with the community, installed air monitoring equipment and analyzed data, all of which they used to tell a compelling story.” Lulu Ramadan, formerly with The Palm Beach Post and now at The Seattle Times, said the "Black Snow” series “was a passion project for our newsrooms. The more people we spoke with in the community, the more we felt it was important to answer long-standing questions about air quality. I'm glad we had the support of our newsrooms and the guidance of academics as we incorporated science and data-collection into our reporting.