Harvest haze, ash settle in

Harvest haze, ash settle in

21 December 2006

published by www.iberianet.com

USA — As sugar cane harvesting is part of life in the Teche Area, so are thesmoke, ash and fires that come with it.

Just before the cane is cut, farmers often burn their fields to rid the crop ofdebris. One of the side effects of the process is the ash it causes toaccumulate on patios, driveways and other outdoor surfaces.

“We get a lot of calls this time of year from the sugar cane burning belt,”said Robert Freeman, regional manager of the state Department of EnvironmentalQuality. “What affects people is not the big particles you can see. It’s thelittle particles that get into the lungs.”

Dr. Chris Gaffga of ENT of Acadiana said ash produced by sugar cane burning is acommon cause of allergy problems, especially when combined with pesticides,mosquito spraying, and farm vehicles common during fall and winter months.

“All those things together bring in a lot more people this time of year,” hesaid.

“The body has a natural system to deal with these kinds of things, but it getsoverwhelmed with what’s going on in the air.”

Gaffga said cane ash is generally “just a nuisance” for most healthy people,but can be more hazardous for children, the elderly and people with asthma.

“It’s not as bad as smoking,” he said, “but it’s definitely a hazardif you’re a susceptible person.”

Despite those concerns, the DEQ has no way of measuring air quality related tosugar cane season, Freeman said.

The nearest monitoring sites are in Lafayette and Morgan City, neither of whichcan detect particles produced by cane burning, he said.

Sugar cane burning is also exempt from DEQ regulations, Freeman said. Louisianalaw permits agricultural burning, as do other sugar-producing states, such asHawaii and Florida.

To ward off future regulation, and to reduce the impact of cane burning on theenvironment, the state Department of Agriculture and the LSU AgCenter institutedsmoke management guidelines for sugar cane harvesting in 2000.

The program educates farmers on best practices for cane burning, said JimmyFlanagan, LSU AgCenter county agent for Iberia Parish.

“Once that program was initiated, the number of complaints was reduceddramatically,” Flanagan said.

Flanagan said the program recommends farmers keep a burn management plan fortheir fields, taking variables such as wind velocity and direction into accountbefore burning.

It also discourages burning near sensitive areas, such as hospitals, schools,neighborhoods and highways.

“For the most part, it’s been very successful,” Flanagan said. “Youalways have one or two farmers that don’t follow the best management practices,but for the most part, everybody tries to cooperate and do the best they can toreduce the impact.”

Flanagan said residents may soon get a reprieve from sugar cane burning. Manymills have instituted a no-burn policy after freezes in order to ensure thequality of sugar cane.

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