CLEWISTON – After nearly three years of litigation, a lawsuit filed against sugar cane farmers over the preharvest burning of sugar cane fields has been dismissed.
The plaintiffs dropped the case just before deadlines required them to produce facts and evidentiary reports in support of their claims.
The lawsuit, filed by Hagens Berman and Berman Law Group, alleged 10 residents of Moore Haven, Clewiston, Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay were injured due to particulates in the air from sugar cane burning.
On Feb. 25, the United States District Court Southern District of Florida dismissed the case with prejudice. This prevents the plaintiffs from filing the same case again.
“As sugarcane farmers have maintained from the start, the case against air quality in the farming region was without merit,” said Judy Sanchez, U.S. Sugar’s Senior Director for Corporate Communications and Public Affairs.
“We believed the science, data, and regulations that support our work every day would show that the air quality in the Glades is ‘good’—the highest quality under federal regulations. Today, the Plaintiffs and their lawyers dropped the lawsuit and voluntarily dismissed all of their claims with prejudice,” she explained.
“The plaintiffs are walking away from their case after U.S. Sugar recently released three years of air quality data and its second annual State of Our Air Report, which provided scientific, accurate, and actual air quality data from both publicly available monitors and a series of private monitors located throughout the farming communities,” Suarez explained. “Every one of these monitors provided consistent data confirming the Glades air is safe, healthy and ‘good.’ This data also confirmed air quality in the Glades region meets all state and federal clean air standards.
“In contrast, the plaintiffs failed to produce or provide a single data point related to the Glades communities’ air quality. Instead, they relied on hypothetical modeling to provide speculations—which, they admitted, was inaccurate and had to be corrected in repeated re-filings before the court.
“Throughout these continued attacks both in court and by well-funded outside activist groups, the people of the Glades communities have demonstrated unwavering support for our local farmers who live here, work here, and raise our children here,” Suarez continued. “They understand that our farming practices are safe, environmentally sound and among the most advanced and heavily regulated in the nation.”
The Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida released the following statement on Feb. 25, concerning the dismissal of a complaint regarding sugarcane farmers’ practice of prescribed burning:
“The complaint was voluntarily dismissed by the plaintiffs with prejudice, and there was no settlement.
"Our family farmers at the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida remain steadfast in our commitment to being good stewards of our land, our air, and our water because our legacy is in the land, and our job is to farm it with great care so that these family farms may be passed from one generation to the next.
"At the Cooperative, our 41 member-growers not only farm sugarcane but also rotate our crops to produce winter vegetables, leafy greens, sweet corn and much more, ensuring families across America can rely on a secure source of home-grown foods at their dinner tables.
"The Cooperative will continue to lead the way when it comes to incorporating Best Management Practices that result in clean air, water, and soil and a healthy environment. Our investment in sustainability standards reflects our deeply rooted dedication to caring for the land that is our livelihood today and our families’ livelihoods for future generations to come.”
Cane field burns only account for about 20% of the state’s prescribed fires each year, according to data from the Florida Forest Service (FFS). Cane field burns are regulated by FFS. Permits are given for a particular day, either morning or afternoon, based on the wind and weather conditions for that day. It takes less than 20 minutes for fire specialists to burn a 40 acre field.
• The class action lawsuit was filed June 4, 2019, against Florida Crystals, Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, U.S. Sugar Corporation, Flo-Sun Inc., American Sugar Refining Inc., Okeelanta Corp., Osceola Farms, Sugarland Harvesting, Trucane Sugar Corp., Independent Harvesting Inc., King Ranch Inc., J&J Ag Products Inc. and DOES 1-50. The original complaint had two plaintiffs, Clover Coffie and Jennie Thompson.
• The first amended complaint was filed Aug. 28, 2019, and listed three plaintiffs, adding Shante LeGrand.
• On May 8, 2020, U.S. District Judge Rodney Smith dismissed much of the amended lawsuit. The court permitted plaintiffs to attempt to re-plead only three of the seven counts. In the court order, U.S. Southern District of Florida Judge Smith noted, “There is nothing in the amended complaint showing that each of the plaintiffs has been harmed by all of the defendants … Unlike the plaintiffs in the cases cited by plaintiffs, who sued one or two defendants, plaintiffs here have sued virtually an entire industry involving what amounts to dozens of actual sugarcane growers. Additionally, the cases cited by plaintiff all involved waterways which have a unidirectional flow, unlike wind patterns, which change. There is nothing in the amended complaint alleging that plaintiffs have been exposed to smoke and ash from all of these dozens of sugarcane producers.”
The judge’s ruling also stated, “Defendants maintain that sugarcane burning falls squarely within the Right to Farm Act: It is a generally accepted agricultural management practice, as evidenced by the fact that it is statutorily permitted and regulated by the Florida Forest Service, and there are no allegations that preharvest burning was a nuisance to anyone at the time these farm operations commenced.”
The order also references the “air quality in Florida is monitored and regulated by FDEP (Florida Department of Environmental Protection) which sets standards for air quality.”