August 15, 2021
“It is frustrating when reporters write attack stories about the Glades without any knowledge of our region or voices from within this community."
Over the past several months, the Palm Beach Post teamed up with ProPublica for a series of stories on the impact of sugar-cane burning on South Florida Glades communities. The series drew concern from local leaders, who say the stories left out many facts and failed to include their perspectives — relying instead mainly on comments from sources outside the Glades. Nearly all the sources used in the series have taken issue with the farming practice and what they perceive as health concerns. Now, many Glades residents are speaking out against what they call a “biased” series that ignores years of public data and does not reflect what they see in their own rural communities. “It is frustrating when reporters write attack stories about the Glades without any knowledge of our region or voices from within this community,” said CyNedra Blake, a single parent from South Bay that has been following the issue locally for the past several years. Blake is involved in a local organization — “Voices of the Glades” — fighting back against what she sees as a troubling trend: Out of town reporters producing stories that ignore facts trusted by community members and local health officials. With many Floridians focused on the daily barrage of public health reports related to COVID-19, Blake believes the Post’s reporting irresponsibly raises doubt about the air quality data issued by the Palm Beach County Health Department. “During a pandemic, a critical time that we all need to take the advice the health department into consideration, the data that is shared should not be questioned, but rather explored for the facts that it spells out.” “The Palm Beach Post had to find a Senator in a state 3,000 miles away to voice concern about a community he’s obviously never been to and clearly knows nothing about,” said Janet Taylor, president of Glades Lives Matter. “The Palm Beach Post needs to stop attacking our communities and go back to reporting on the more pressing issues facing our state and nation.” Health leaders from the area have taken issue with local news reports as well. “As documented by the Palm Beach County Health Department, the air quality in Belle Glade and throughout Palm Beach County is good, with pollution levels lower than the state average,” said Dr. Wilhelmina Lewis, president and Chief Executive Officer of Florida Community Health Centers, which runs health facilities in Indiantown, Pahokee, Clewiston and Moore Haven near the sugar-cane farming region. “Many respiratory issues we see are largely due to smoking, living with someone who smokes, bonfires/fire pits, and poorly maintained air conditioning. Also, we often find that our patients have not routinely accessed care to assist with chronic health issues such as asthma and emphysema.” Like Lewis, Hendry Regional Medical Center CEO R.D. Williams of Clewiston is not aware of the health trends suggested in the Post’s reports. “Florida Department of Health studies on adolescent asthma rates for our area are at or below state averages,” Williams said. “Colorful anecdotes may make for good news copy, but it does not change the fact that our area does NOT see increases in respiratory issues in our medical facilities related to sugar-cane farming seasons.” In a recent Facebook post, Clewiston City Commissioner Hillary Hyslope noted the hypocrisy in the Post’s most recent story, which included a statement from U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, critical of air quality in Belle Glade, despite air quality issues in Oregon. “All due respect Senator, if you want to talk about ‘dangerous pollution levels,’ talk to your own constituents … Take a look at Oregon’s current air quality, up to 213 in some spots,” said Hyslope. Hyslope notes the air quality in the Glades that day was at 19.
As reported by Florida Politics in July, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently confirmed that Florida has met all ambient air quality standards and ranks atop the most populated states in the U.S. for clean air for the second straight year. “These efforts have not only resulted in Florida continuing to have the cleanest air on record but to remain the most populous state in the United States to meet these stringent federal standards,” said a spokesperson for the DEP. Months before the Post reports, DEP announced plans to continue updating the state’s air quality monitoring network with new equipment, according to its 2021 draft Annual Ambient Air Monitoring Network Plan released in May. Among the South Florida stations set to receive new equipment are Delray Beach, Belle Glade and Homestead. According to the plan, the state plans to replace the air quality monitor in Belle Glade with a new monitor that will reinstate the Belle Glade station as an official regulatory monitor. Since 2013, that monitor has been measuring PM2.5 and reporting as an Air Quality Index (AQI) network station through an approved waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency. Farmers, for their part, have maintained that the public air quality data shows that the air in the Glades community, where U.S. Sugar’s farmers operate, was cleaner than the air in nearby West Palm Beach — and that’s the case year-round, including harvest season. “The Glades communities have some of the best air quality in the state,” said Robert Buker, U.S. Sugar president and CEO. “The health, safety, and well-being of our community continue to be a foundational commitment in everything we do.”