The Wrap: State agency emails show Palm Beach Post misled readers again

by | Aug 15, 2021

Every weekend, we look at the news stories shaping the conversations in Florida’s business, public policy, and political worlds. Here’s this weekend’s Capitolist wrap-up, which we call “The Wrap.”

Bogus claim about “malfunctioning” air monitor resurfaced again this week

In the latest installment of the Palm Beach Post’s ongoing series of stories examining the practice of pre-harvest sugar cane burning in South Florida, Post reporter Lulu Ramadan has misled readers again.

One of the core claims in Ramadan’s ongoing “Black Snow” series centers on what she describes as an air quality monitor in Belle Glade, Florida that has been “malfunctioning” for eight years. The false claim is used to prop up her controversial reporting, paid for by a dark-money third party group (not the Post itself), and she repeats it several times in many different stories. She also uses the claim as a foil against state environmental officials to portray them as not doing enough to protect citizens.

But there is zero evidence that the air monitor in Belle Glade was ever “malfunctioning” as Ramadan implies to readers.

Here’s the original wording put forward by Ramadan:

State officials found that the monitor was malfunctioning as far back as eight years ago, and, as of last week, it was still not fit to gauge Clean Air Act compliance.”

The statement in bold is false, and the rest of the sentence is misleading because the current monitor isn’t built for the purpose of gauging Clean Air Act compliance in the first place. State and federal officials both say the monitor serves a different purpose as part of a larger network to monitor overall air quality across a broad region, but is not used for Environmental Protection Agency regulatory purposes, which use a different standard.

Ramadan and other Post reporters have since repeated the false claim that it’s been “malfunctioning” in a handful of other news stories since that time. But perhaps the most telling is the way Ramadan and the Post defended the “malfunctioning” claim when initially challenged about the falsehood by two of the largest sugar farming companies in the region, U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, who wrote in response to her article that the monitor appeared to be working as intended.

In its published defense of the false claim, the Post actually backed down from stating explicitly that the monitor was “malfunctioning,” yet still misled readers by implying it wasn’t working properly. They then wrote:

“Instead of replacing or repairing the monitor, the state environmental department kept running the monitor for the Air Quality Index…”

What she doesn’t tell her readers is that the monitor works just fine for monitoring the Air Quality Index, which is its intended purpose. It is Ramadan’s opinion, coming through in her biased reporting, that she believes the monitor should do more – specifically, she believes it should meet federal EPA requirements for regulatory purposes, which use a different standard with different capabilities for measuring air particulates.

Ramadan and her enablers at the Post were back at it this week with yet another story riddled with the same lack of fact-based reporting, where she again repeated the false “malfunctioning air monitor” claim, and even bragged that her false claim has triggered a call for a “federal investigation” by two Democrat lawmakers who want the:

“U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the circumstances around the malfunctioning monitor…”

It’s worth repeating that there is no “malfunctioning monitor,” only a badly malfunctioning Palm Beach Post. And both Ramadan and the Post have repeatedly declined to produce a shred of evidence in support of the misleading claim. despite a request from The Capitolist and despite similar requests from other organizations.

So we went about solving the problem another way, seeking an explanation of exactly what Ramadan was told by state officials and exactly what state officials were asked about by Ramadan, with a focus on the specific monitor located in Belle Glade, Florida.

Emails exchanged between state environmental officials and Ramadan undercut a key tenet of the Post’s reporting

In a series of 29 emails obtained by The Capitolist that were exchanged between Ramadan and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, neither Ramadan nor state officials ever referred to the Belle Glade air quality monitor as “malfunctioning.” The messages were sent over a six-month period between January and July of this year.

In a number of the messages, Ramadan asks specific questions about the Belle Glade monitor. She is told repeatedly by state officials that the monitor is perfectly functional for the purpose it was installed, which is to measure for pollutants that meet specific criteria:

“The monitor in Belle Glade is a non-regulatory monitor, meaning that while it measures criteria pollutants, it is not intended to provide data for regulatory purposes…”

Ramadan circles back with DEP officials, and later even with Department of Health officials, trying desperately to get something – anything – she can use to deliver the quid pro quo she promised to ProPublica in exchange for the hard-hitting story.

But at no point did any official or Ramadan herself ever discuss a “malfunctioning” air quality monitor. Its existence is a complete fabrication by Ramadan in what appears to be an attempt to undercut the credibility of state environmental officials who weren’t giving her the kinds of statements she needed to support her story.

Once again, both Ramadan and the Palm Beach Post owe readers an apology for misleading them about the circumstances and facts pertaining to pre-harvest cane burning. But they aren’t likely to get much out of Ramadan, who announced last week that she is leaving the Palm Beach Post after six years. Ramadan announced she was taking a position with the Seattle Times in Washington State.

She declined to answer questions from The Capitolist about the circumstances of her separation from the Post.




1 Comment

  1. Emc

    Pro publica lists its donors. Why do u call it dark money? That seems pretty careless unless u know it has funding it fails to list. As for these monitors, the news reporting asserts they do not collect useful/realistic data, not just that they weren’t working. If u would like to demonstrate that pro publica is not an investigative journalism institution stepping in where newspapers have retreated, that would be interesting. What have u got ?

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