How ProPublica and Palm Beach Post Investigated Florida Communities Affected by Sugar Cane Burning Pollution

by Madison Carter and Jakob Salao


In July 2021, ProPublica and Palm Beach Post investigated the effects of sugar cane burning on local communities in Florida. Their reports found that the residents in Palm Beach County were being exposed to up to four times the average pollution level in the area during the sugar cane burnings. The reporters consulted with researchers who said that the pollution levels could lead to “health risks both in the short term and over the course of the monthslong burn season.” The reporters also found that the way that the government reported air pollution during the burnings was not effective.

Organizations Background: ProPublica is a non-profit organization that investigates abuses of power through journalism. It was founded in 2007-2008 with a current existing team of over 100 journalists. Their funding comes mostly from large foundations. Palm Beach Post is a newspaper publication that covers the West Palm Beach area with local news, headlines, and events.


Project Goals

Investigating how Florida’s lawmakers have allowed the sugar industries to burn crops at their community’s expense.

Project Resources

Three reporters, four editors, $450 worth of PurpleAir monitors, and $300 for a freelance developer for building an interface with textbot which is an automated response system.

Tools & Technology

The tools and technology that were used include Google forms, PurpleAir monitors that measure particulate matter, and Dialogflow which is a platform used for natural language processing.


The study conducted by ProPublica and Palm Beach Post assisted in creating a connection between journalists and the people living in underrepresented and underfunded communities. The engaged journalists were the first to challenge the original monitors’ quality further investigating the amount of illnesses and hospitalizations in the community.

How it Happened

Florida residents mainly in Black and Hispanic communities have complained about unhealthy air quality for years due to sugar cane burning companies.  Said sugar companies have claimed the air quality is healthy, leading to federal court involvement. 

  • A class action lawsuit was filed in two major areas where sugar companies produce which caused LuLu Ramadan to investigate and report.
  • Initial reporting by Ramadan led to ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network becoming involved with the investigation after Ramadan reached out to ProPublica.
  • Ramadan began to work with ProPublica’s engagement reporter Maya Miller, and news applications developer Ash Ngu. 

What Worked

1. Reaching out to the community for needs prior to the start of the project. 

One of the goals of the project was to show how the community was affected by these issues. By reaching out before the start of the project to learn about the community, the journalists were able to build trust with the members of the community and learn more about the issues that were affecting them. 

2. They gave residents multiple options for participating in the reporting. 

Unlike many urban cities, people that live in the Glades don’t use technology in the same way that other cities might. Because of this, they don’t use social media as often as other communities. The journalists took this into account and reached out to the community members in-person at different locations. They also went door-to-door to meet the community members individually to further the trust between the journalist and community members. 

3. Worked closely with academic experts from across the country. 

The project consulted with experts from different institutions across the United States, including Florida State University, University of California Merced, Colorado State University, and Columbia University. The collaboration between these experts helped to ensure that the analysis of the data was accurate and that the effects were properly analyzed.

What Could Have Worked Better

1. Having more lead time.

With at least a full year, the journalists and researchers would have been able to place the monitors more effectively and collect more data for analysis. 

2. Having monitors for a more extended period of time.

The burning season was 4 months long, so possibly an additional 4 months during the off-season as a control would have given the researchers a better idea of how the smoke affects the community. 

3. Access to larger quantities of monitors.

If funds weren’t a limitation, having more monitors would increase the range of possibly affected households the researchers could analyze. This would be able to show in greater detail the air pollution levels experienced by the community.

What Else You Should Know

Sheryl Magzamen, a professor at Colorado State University, has submitted a grant proposal on expanding research of the cane burnings to be able to work with a NASA air quality research division. This work would be able to use satellite data to better analyze the effects of the cane burnings and could possibly dive deeper into other issues affecting communities that may be unnoticed.

Learn More

To learn more, reach out to Maya Miller by email or Twitter, Ash Ngu on Twitter, or Lulu Ramadan on Twitter.  

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