For years, residents living amid Florida’s sugar fields have complained about cane burning, a harvesting method that chokes communities of color with smoke and ash. Yet sugar companies and regulators have reassured people that the air is healthy.
The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica tested that proposition, using our own monitors to produce a first-of-its-kind analysis tying the burning to spikes in pollution, which experts said posed health risks. We also analyzed hospitalization records and even traveled to Brazil, where São Paulo officials have largely phased out burning after residents there voiced concerns similar to those of Floridians today.
Our investigation revealed that regulators depended on an unfit air monitor and measured pollution in a way that failed to capture the impact of cane burning. After we started asking questions, officials replaced the monitor, and federal lawmakers pressed to tighten the nation’s pollution standards.
Citing the reporting, Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon and one of the upper chamber’s leading voices on environmental justice, called for greater federal oversight to make sure a similar situation does not happen again.
“What the predominantly Black and Hispanic communities living near cane fields in Florida have been put through is completely unacceptable,” said Merkley, who serves as chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee’s subcommittee on environmental justice.
Changes to the nation’s air-monitoring framework are necessary, Merkley said, “to make it harder for industries to bury evidence of the dangerous pollution levels they’re causing.”
Moreover, the investigation prompted new research that will add air sensors in the sugar-growing Glades region and examine health trends this year — something Florida has failed to do. The study, funded by NASA, will be the most comprehensive effort of its kind in the area.
The Post/ProPublica project is also reshaping the political debate in Florida, where both parties have long supported the sugar industry. In December, Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation to roll back a law that protects farmers from lawsuits over air pollution. And U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who previously served as governor and is now a contender for the post again, has pledged to push for “a shift away from burning and towards a cleaner harvesting process” if elected governor this year. He called for action in response to our reporting, saying “we cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the air pollution and health hazards this community is experiencing.”
To collect real-time air-quality data in the Glades, ProPublica and The Post collaborated with residents to set up low-cost sensors outside their homes in Pahokee, one of the towns that dot the area. These PurpleAir sensors constantly recorded air pollution levels over four months of the cane-burning season.
The air-quality data was analyzed in tandem with burn permit logs and smoke plume projections from the state Agriculture Department. We sought to discern the relationship, if any, between cane burns and increased air pollution at residents’ homes while taking into account wind and other atmospheric variables that affect how smoke travels. Armed with the state’s smoke projections, we used mapping software to categorize each day based on whether smoke from the burns was projected to reach Pahokee. Our analysis of more than 100 days of data found repeated spikes in particulate matter, or PM2.5, on days when the state authorized cane burns and projected smoke would blow toward instead of away from town. Our sensors reported more spikes in PM2.5 between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. — the hours when cane is burned and the resulting smoke may linger.
In addition to the analysis of the air-quality data, we also gathered qualitative data about the effects of cane smoke using a text bot that surveyed residents whenever our sensors detected a spike in pollution. The residents were asked how the air smelled, how much smoke they saw in the air and what health-related reactions, if any, they had. To sign up community members, we called every sixth person on the voter rolls; we designed flyers and posted them on bulletin boards and community gathering spots; we attended a Zoom church service to discuss the effort; and we contacted local leaders and knocked on doors.
What was the hardest part of this project?
Until our investigation, reporting on cane burning in the Glades largely rested on anecdotal accounts and political spin. This project combined original records research and reporting, deep community engagement and a novel citizen science experiment using low-cost air-quality sensors to produce a first-of-its-kind analysis showing the link between cane burning and air pollution near residents’ homes.
The effort underscored why officials’ claims of safety have persisted for so long. Sugar cane burning is uniquely challenging to track because the burns last roughly 15 to 40 minutes and occur in fields across a 400,000-acre region. Air pollution analyses often rely on hourly or daily data from a regulatory monitor that can miss or mute short bursts of pollution. Our project, however, used PurpleAir sensors to measure air-quality levels in real time. The data allowed us to identify the existence of short spikes in pollution during cane-burning hours on days when the smoke was projected to blow toward Pahokee.
The project was made possible through a deep level of community engagement. But outreach was particularly complicated because many of the same people who are affected by the seasonal burns also benefit from the industry’s role as one of the biggest employers in the region. Residents in the area also often have unreliable Wi-Fi, which made it challenging to find residents who wanted to and were able to host a PurpleAir sensor.
The stakes for the billion-dollar sugar industry were high, and it challenged the project’s reporting and methodology at every turn. We published an explainer to address criticisms and walk readers through the complex science and regulation. Even then, one of Florida’s largest sugar producers mounted a public relations campaign in the Glades to discredit ProPublica, which it called an “activist, agenda-driven, online-only website.” The project has no corrections or clarifications.
What can others learn from this project?
PurpleAir sensors are a relatively recent innovation; the first version of the sensors was created in 2015. In the past few years, though, the sensors have undergone enough development and testing by universities, air-quality groups and regulators like the EPA that they are able to be used in a project where reporters work with residents to do their own monitoring of air pollution in places where the government’s air-monitoring system is lacking. Since publishing “Black Snow,” the PurpleAir staff has emailed the reporters to say that “tons of groups have been following suit” and that “it really gave lots of folks who struggle with localized pollution ideas and courage to set up sensors and do their own research.” Journalists can do the same.
Additionally, the project’s reporters have already begun sharing the tools they used for community engagement that made this project possible. At the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference last year, Ramadan and Miller detailed how to use free text bot tools to get real-time feedback from dozens of sources at once. They also shared tips on conducting community research to then generate and launch tailored outreach strategies to reach communities where they are (this can range from letter-writing to door-knocking to hosting events, among others). Reporters from other news organizations have since reached out and said they have deployed these tips and tools in their own journalism. We expect that will only continue.