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'Black Snow' Investigation by The Palm Beach Post & ProPublica Finds Cane Burning Causes Spikes in Air Pollution in Nearby Towns

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The Palm Beach Post
A sugar cane field burns before it is harvested in Okeelanta, Florida on January 29, 2021. (Greg Lovett/The Palm Beach Post)

Florida sugar growers burn their fields prior to harvest in order to make the harvesting process easier. The burns release huge plumes of smoke and ash that blankets areas nearby. Despite years of complaints from residents, the sugar industry and state health and environmental officials say the air is healthy to breathe.

So, in order to track pollution and air quality in the Glades, a reporting team from The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica set up air sensors at people’s homes that found repeated spikes in pollution on days when the state authorized cane burning and projected that the smoke would blow toward them. Health and air-quality experts say this exposure does pose health risks both in the short term and over the course of the months during burn season. The interactive feature story was published on July 8.

And, the investigation found that a government-run air monitor in the town of Belle Glade was flagged as malfunctioning eight years ago, and as of two weeks ago was still not fit to gauge Clean Air Act compliance.

We get a sense of how this investigation was undertaken, and how the sugar industry has responded to it, with two of the reporters on the team.

Maya Miller is an Engagement Reporter with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network.
Ash Ngu is a Reporter, Designer and Developer with ProPublica's news apps team.

You can read the story about how some schools lease land to sugar growers that was mentioned during the interview here.