2022 3M Truth in Science Award, Large Newsroom winner

Black Snow: Big Sugar’s Burning Problem

About the Project

For years, residents living amid Florida’s sugar fields have complained about cane burning, a harvesting method that helps produce more than half of America’s cane sugar but chokes Black and Hispanic communities near the Everglades with smoke and ash. They call it “black snow.”

All the while, politically powerful sugar companies and state regulators have reassured residents that the air is healthy to breathe.

Over 18 months, The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica tested that proposition, producing a first-of-its-kind analysis of pollution linked to cane burning. We interviewed dozens of people living amid the cane fields, obtained hundreds of public records from environmental and public health agencies and deployed our own air monitoring.

Our investigation revealed that state regulators depended on data from a single monitor to track air quality across the sugar-growing region, despite telling their federal counterparts that that monitor was unfit to determine whether the air met standards set under the Clean Air Act.

We installed our own air sensors to see if residents were being exposed to pollutants in ways that current monitoring systems would miss. They were. The readings showed repeated spikes in pollution on days when the state had authorized cane burning. These short-term spikes often reached four times the average pollution levels in the area — enough that experts said they posed health risks.

But we knew words could only go so far. So we tapped the power of ProPublica’s news apps team to develop an immersive digital experience.

We built an interactive map in the first story to show readers how many acres were expected to be burned and where smoke was projected to blow. By scrolling more, they can see the impact over four months of burning: The Glades are obscured under a cloud of smoke while the wealthier, whiter communities to the east are clear. In addition, we used a series of charts and visualizations to illustrate the data from our own air monitoring. Readers can see what pollution levels looked like, as well as how spikes were concentrated during cane-burning hours.

Another story in the series exposed how Florida ignored the recommendations of its own researchers to study the health impact of cane burning. To help fill that gap, we used eight years of hospitalization data to perform a broad analysis, which experts say is often the first step in a full health-risk assessment. We found hospital and emergency room visits for breathing problems among Glades patients spiked during cane-burning season.

Throughout it all, Florida’s largest sugar producers maintained that burning was safe and could not be stopped without significant economic impact.

So we traveled to Brazil, the world’s largest sugar producer, where São Paulo officials largely phased out burning years ago, after residents there voiced concerns similar to those of Floridians today. We made a short documentary explaining how the industry switched to another harvesting method, one that has paid off for companies in terms of profit and for the public in terms of health.

Judges comments

This entry stood out for its fusion of good writing, visuals, presentation and audience engagement efforts. Judges also liked the team’s explanation of how they gathered their reporting — for instance, calling on experts to advise the reporters’ use of air sensors to get data.