Glades communities enjoy better air quality than the state’s average, according to data collected by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). A new public monitor installed in 2021 backs up that claim.
The Second Annual State of Our Air report, issued this week by U.S. Sugar, includes both publicly available and privately collected data, showing the air quality in Everglades Agricultural Area communities – commonly referred to as the Glades – is rated “good,” the highest designation of air quality set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We have some of the best air quality in the state,” explained U.S. Sugar President and CEO Robert H. Buker Jr. “This claim is once again supported by years of publicly available air quality data and affirmed by countless independent organizations, including the American Lung Association. As members of the community, this is just one of the many reasons we live and raise our families here. As farmers, we thrive only when the water, air, and land are kept healthy and clean.
“In order to get even more information and data than was publicly available, our farmers placed professional-grade air quality monitoring equipment in three additional locations throughout the region. We also decided to look beyond small particulates (PM2.5) and check polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs had been part of recent false attacks by outside activist groups and paid news reports. Fortunately, all the internal monitoring data we collected confirms what the public air quality monitoring has shown for decades – the air in our farming community is good, safe and clean,” Buker stated.
An article published in July 2021 through a partnership with the Palm Beach Post and ProPublica claimed “State officials used a single monitor to track air quality across the 400,000-acre sugar-growing region for at least eight years, despite telling their federal counterparts that it was malfunctioning and unfit to determine whether the air met standards set under the Clean Air Act.”
According to a spokesperson from FDEP, there was an issue with the Belle Glade monitor, but it was not “malfunctioning.”
“The state of Florida has one of the best outdoor air quality monitoring networks in the country, designed to provide the public with accurate air quality information, and currently meets or exceeds federal air monitoring requirements per the Clean Air Act. The network is comprised of more than 177 monitors at 90 sites strategically positioned across the state – including one in Belle Glade,” Alexandra Kuchta of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection explained in an August 2021 interview. “The monitor in Belle Glade is a non-regulatory monitor, meaning that while it measures criteria pollutants, it is not intended to provide data for regulatory purposes. Rather, this monitor provides real-time information that can be used to provide Floridians with real-time air quality data through DEP’s website and AirNow.”
In November 2021 FDEP installed a new, federally-approved FEM regulatory monitor that shows readings consistent with the previous monitor and is the same type monitor used to collect the private data included in this report; which should serve as additional proof points that the air in our communities is “good,” the State of Our Air Report adds.
According to the EPA, PM 2.5 are fine particles (under 2.5 microns) – either solid or within liquid droplets – found in the air. The EPA regulates PM 2.5 levels on the basis of two different standards: (1) primary standard, which provides public health protection, including “sensitive” populations and (2) secondary standard, which provides general public welfare protection. For 24-hour analyses, the EPA standard is 35 µg/m3 meaning daily averages below 35 µg/m3 meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) air quality standards. (One µg/m3 is one-millionth of a gram per cubic meter of air.)
The State of Our Air report looked at data from two public monitors: The Belle Glade monitor on State Road 80 and the monitor at 151 Lamstein Lane in Palm Beach County. It also includes data from three private monitors in Belle Glade, Loxahatchee and Ortona.
The data shows “many of the heightened levels of PM 2.5 can be attributed to natural causes, such as wildfires and Saharan Dust events. Unlike controlled pre-harvest burns which are conducted only under approved conditions by the Florida Division of Forestry in agricultural settings, unauthorized fire events cause a concentrated and sustained level of PM 2.5 to remain in the atmospheric breathing zone. Conversely, prescribed burns—which are highly regulated and monitored by certified burn experts—quickly dissipate and rarely affect the breathing zone,” the report explains.
Since 2019, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried has implemented two phases of improvements to the prescribed burning program, including utilizing the Air Quality Index, fog advisories and the smoke dispersion index. Permits for sugar cane burns are issued on the morning or the afternoon of the burn, for a four-hour window, based on current weather conditions. It takes burn specialists about 20 minutes to burn a 40-acre field. EAA burners are required to complete the Florida Certified Prescribed Burn Manager Training Course.
In 2020, the Florida Commission of Agriculture and Consumer Services also redrew the zone boundaries to better protect the public by reducing potential smoke impact to all communities within the EAA. The zone redesign took population growth into account, and added two additional zones.