Omari Hardy was right about sugarcane burning

In April, then-state Rep. Omari Hardy did the right thing.

As the Florida Legislature rammed through a new law expanding the “right to farm” — and indemnifying the powerful sugar industry from lawsuits related to sugarcane burning — Hardy stood in the way. In subcommittee hearings, the Palm Beach County representative sponsored a series of amendments — all of them voted down — that sought to strip the bill of its many bad elements.

Hardy objected primarily to Senate Bill 88’s addition of “particle emissions” to the list of protected farming practices. The black ash and smoke that wafts over the Glades communities when Big Sugar is burning the fields to prepare for harvest is suspected of contributing to health problems among many of the region’s poorest residents.

Click the video above to listen to Rep. Hardy introduce a strike-all amendment during the House Environment, Agriculture and Flooding Subcommittee meeting on 3-30-21. (Timestamp 13:40 – 15:19)

And now the industry was going to get a free pass; the bill “gives Big Sugar an immunity shield from lawsuits about how their practices have harmed human beings,” Hardy said at the time. It’s a rarity to hear any Tallahassee lawmaker call out Big Sugar, and we applauded Hardy’s straight talk.

Most of his colleagues weren’t interested, though, and the bill sailed through. But turns out Hardy, who resigned his state House seat to run for the District 20 congressional seat vacated when U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings passed away, was prescient.

Now, in the wake of groundbreaking new reporting of the issue, federal officials are asking tough questions about the burning cane fields, calling for a federal investigation into how Florida has monitored air quality and the Glades region and looking to tighten federal pollution regulations.

Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon and a leading advocate of environmental justice, told the Palm Beach Post and ProPublica that “No one — regardless of the color of their skin, where they live, or their income — should have to breathe in harmful smoke, or worry about whether their child is getting poisoned when they play outside.”

It sounds so sensible. But as the state Legislature was pushing through enhancements to the “Right to Farm” law, common sense was in short supply — save for Hardy and too few others.

If Florida is ever going to solve its water problems and other environmental crises, we need common sense.

We need fighters, elected officials willing to crusade for justice against corporate corruption.

This week Hardy gained the endorsement of three notable House members, Democratic Reps. Anna Eskamani, Travaris McCurdy and Carlos Guillermo Smith. But the race to replace Hastings features a crowded field, with 11 candidates (including Hardy) seeking the seat.

Given that the Everglades Agricultural Area lies largely in Palm Beach County, it’s crucial that whomever wins this key seat is willing to fight for environmental justice, clean water and an end to Big Sugar’s authoritarian reign over the political process.