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Bill aims to repeal some protections for farmers from lawsuits related to field burning, health impacts from particle emissions

New bill has been filed aiming to repeal some of those protections
Posted at 11:34 PM, Dec 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-07 01:21:45-05

BELLE GLADE, Fla. — Right now, it's burn season for farmers around the state, meaning you might see more plumes of smoke as farmers, like sugarcane farmers, prepare for harvest.

Under new provisions added to the Florida Right to Farm Act, farmers are better protected from lawsuits surrounding their burning activities.

But there is a new bill that has been filed aiming to repeal some of those protections.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, and Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, have filed a bill to repeal part of SB 88, which allowed "particle emissions" to be on a list of protected farming activities under the Florida Right to Farm Act.

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"Hundreds of thousands of acres are burned before they are harvested south of Lake Okeechobee, and that burning creates particle emissions — smoke and ash — known in the Glades communities as 'black snow' that causes respiratory issues and other health problems in the area," said Eve Samples, executive director for Friends of the Everglades.

She said her organization is supporting the bill to repeal what she considers overly generous protections for farmers. SB 88, which passed this year, only allows people who live within 1/2 a mile of a farming operation to bring a claim.

"We know from the Florida Forest Service that ash and smoke can extend from 27 to 30 miles, so half a mile is really unrealistic in terms of who is impacted by burning," Samples said.

Some Glades area residents have reported concerns over health impacts from the burns.

"Children are having to use their inhalers more often before they go out when the burns are occurring," Samples described.

Concerns over health impacts have also led to lawsuits.

However, SB 88 received nearly unanimous support in the state legislature and bipartisan support.

It also gained the support of people who live in the Glades area. In a letter signed by three mayors of Glades communities, the mayors said in part, "Outside groups claim to know what's best for us and are instead threatening once again to disrupt our way of life as we know it."

Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson, Pahokee Mayor Keith Babb and South Bay Mayor Joe Kyles said in that letter that the agriculture industry is the lifeblood of their economy, and they support protections that prevent nuisance lawsuits that threaten the sustainability and longevity of farming operations.

Former Hendry County Commissioner and president of Glades Lives Matter, Janet Taylor, also issued a statement saying, "We support the original bill and do not wish to see it repealed. No one consulted anyone from our communities before filing legislation to repeal this good bill."

The Florida Ag Coalition, Florida Forestry Service, AIF, United Dairy Farmers and the Florida Farm Bureau are among other supporters of the original bill.

Samples said she anticipates an uphill battle but anticipates gaining additional support.

"We just think that residents who are downwind of agricultural burning, whether its sugarcane burning or something else, should have the right to go to a court and the court can decide whether they have been harmed," Samples said. "Don't preclude their legal rights. Don't strip their legal rights."