A host of Central Florida’s state and local leaders who have fought for environmental causes were honored Friday by Soil and Water Conservation Chairman Eric Rollings.
Among those honored with the Chairman’s Award for Environmental Excellence were Sen. Darren Soto, Rep. Mike Miller, City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, and County Commissioner Pete Clarke. It was stressed multiple times that the awards were bipartisan — they were simply praising every leader in the area who had fought to save the environment.
In addition, Rollings closed the ceremony with a tribute to attorney Chris Byrd, a devout environmentalist who passed away earlier this month.
Soto couldn’t attend the proceedings, so his award was accepted by Cecilia Cruz, who works for him. Rollings praised Soto’s action on protecting the beaches, water and sea life, and for looking into the deaths of fish in the state’s waters.
Rollings praised Miller for fighting against fracking and for supporting “home rule,” against the idea that the state could tell local governments not to make laws restricting fracking.
Miller himself said the fracking seemed unnecessary to have with the number of people who wanted to move to Florida and enjoy its natural beauty.
“There are 100 million people coming to Florida a year,” he said. “Why have fracking when people are coming here? We should allow local communities to opt out of that.”
He said he would push for an all-out ban on fracking, and that he was “not comfortable” with it at all.
Sheehan was praised for her years of service. Rollings recalled the 2004 hurricanes, where Sheehan had been out in the streets helping move debris herself.
She said one of her recent causes has been getting styrofoam out of the water, as it could harm animals living in the water.
“I don’t support the government coming in and telling us what to do,” she said. “There’s styrofoam in the water killing little turtles. They eat it and become buoyant. And I have to allow guns in my chamber — it’s getting out of control, the government coming here.”
She said she was working on a way to recycle styrofoam pellets to help alleviate the problem.
Clarke, who Rollings touted as being “always a champion” of the environment, said he, too, was against fracking.
“Fracking just sounds like a nasty word,” he said. “What is that? It sounds like a bad word. We don’t want our area to look like Mad Max, with no water left.”
To round out the ceremony, Rollings and Speak Up Wekiva founder and former Senate candidate Chuck O’Neal paid tribute to Byrd, an attorney and environmental activist who gained notoriety some years back for whistleblowing Gov. Rick Scott‘s apparent order that the Department of Environmental Protection not use terms like “climate change.”
In addition, Byrd started a private practice and later was a tireless advocate for numerous other environmental causes, taking on the state and winning sometimes on issues as far-ranging as black bears, state park lands, coral reefs, or the Indian River Lagoon.
O’Neal delivered an impassioned tribute, recalling the illness that would eventually take Byrd’s life and saying he fought on in spite of it.
“Even though he had a genetic disease he knew would take his life prematurely, Chris fought for the long-term interest of every person and every creature in this state,” he said. “He knew he would never see the promised land, never see the end of his eloquent legal pleadings, yet he fought on for all of us.”