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U.S. Sugar calls recent EPA cane burning complaint “baseless”

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An environmental activist group has filed a complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seeking a challenge to an air emissions permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to the U.S. Sugar Corp.

Attorneys for Earthjustice filed the complaint Thursday, which seeks to include cane burning as part of DEP’s purview when issuing air emissions permits. In August, a similar petition by the Sierra Club was dismissed by DEP, which noted that the prescribed burns used for cane burning are “subject to oversight by the Florida Forest Service.”

The Clewiston-based agriculture company – which held a news conference call in September on the issue – has held that air quality in Hendry and western Palm Beach counties is among the best in the state, and ascribes the challenge to a desire to damage the industry for ideological reasons.

“People living in these communities have to breathe hazardous, black smoke. There’s a foul odor in the air and ash raining down. It’s not right, and that’s why we are challenging the permit,” said Frank Jackalone, Florida organizing manager for the Sierra Club.

“Burning sugar cane fields is an outdated practice that should be stopped. People living in South Florida have the right to breathe clean air, and allowing this company to conduct open burning on thousands of acres without Clean Air Act regulation is both unfair and unsafe.”

But U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said they have heard those “baseless” charges for years, and that they have so far failed to sway regulators.

“This petition is not unexpected given that similar arguments were previously made and dismissed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Considering that critics have already lost at the state level, they are now attempting to shop the same discredited arguments with federal regulators,” Sanchez said in a prepared statement Thursday.

“These petitions are motivated by a desire to inflict economic harm on our business, our farmers’ way of life, and our communities. This petition is completely without merit and we will be filing our response to that effect with the Environmental Protection Agency,” Sanchez said.

In September, Pat Dobbins, former Florida Department of Health medical officer for Hendry and Glades counties,  raised doubts about arguments that link cane burning to negative health effects.

Dobbins said the health community is “unanimous in agreeing that cane burning does not pose a threat to the health of the communities near where it occurs.” She also pointed to the state’s regulatory requirements for cane burning and local monitoring, which show South Florida’s agricultural areas are “as clean as any other part of the state.”

Key to the dispute are the terms of the state permit. The environmental groups bringing the EPA challenge say the sugar company’s permit with the state should be required to cover cane burning, a farming practice the industry says is vital to harvesting sugarcane in Florida.

Representatives of the industry, for their part, say the practice is already closely monitored and regulated by the state and additional federal regulator hurdles have never been required and are not necessary.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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