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Duke boycott efforts quiet with PolyPack owner’s environmental assurance

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Earlier this week, the Tampa Bay Times reported that the Center for Biological Diversity is pulling out of the city’s second Earth Day Celebration in South Straub Park on April 18.

According to the Times, that Arizona-based nonprofit requested a refund of its $75 fee because leaders learned the event’s main sponsor is Duke Energy.

Duke has been plagued by negative press stemming from grassroots protests condemning the energy giant for being a leader in dirty energy. The Center for Biological Diversity cited instances of Duke-related air and water contamination and millions of dollars worth of unpaid property taxes.

Local activists also shun Duke over its collection of advanced nuclear cost recovery fees that have put rate payers on the hook for $3.2 billion.

But there’s more to this story than a bunch of environmentally conscious activists protesting one of Florida’s largest energy providers.

In a Facebook post Wednesday morning, Sierra Club member Tim Martin called attention to the Center for Biological Diversity’s pulling out from the Earth Day Celebration. He begged the question, “should participating organizations pull out of the event in protest? Or should they stay and display a placard protesting Duke’s involvement?”

The conversation took off immediately with most commenters agreeing that groups should either attend the event and actively engage citizens on the failures of Duke Energy or create a media firestorm surrounding any boycott.

That’s when Martin tagged several reporters including those with Creative Loafing and the Tampa Bay Times and, of course, yours truly.

But it wasn’t reporters who took the most notice. It was Montserrat Cerf. She likely saw the conversation growing on Facebook and sent Martin a friend request. Moments later, her husband responded to the conversation.

“I decided to chair the first annual St Pete Earth Day Festival in 2014, after completing a 1,000-panel solar installation on our manufacturing facility in Pinellas Park. Generating 85% to 90% of our electricity with a 6-year pay back. I thought, if we can do it, so can others, and we should therefore have an Earth Day Festival to educate our residents and businesses on how to become greener,” he wrote.

Cerf did not directly come to Duke’s defense, but he did point out the energy company does now employ a solar specialist.

He also pointed out that Duke was the only donor to come to the table with a large donation. The energy giant kicked in $5,000 for the St. Pete Earth Day Celebration and has little involvement in its planning and execution.

“Duke is not the driver of the event, they are simply donating $5,000.00, all of which will be used toward a solar installation for the new Secret of the Sea Discovery Center,” his post continued.

Cerf encouraged anyone questioning whether they should attend the event in downtown St. Pete to direct questions toward him. He encouraged all to attend and said, “I want this event to grow and become the best educational Earth Day Festival in the state.”

The lengthy Facebook post did change the tenor of conversation. Environmentalists shifted from supporting either an anti-Duke Earth Day festival boycott or media firestorm to suggestions of alternative, Duke-free celebrations.

“Thanks for posting that! Glad you guys continued after last year, your work is amazing! Thanks for all that you do for our planet,” wrote Jennifer Winter.

The Cerf’s own PolyPack, a shrink wrap machine and packaging manufacturer. It’s building operates largely on solar power.

Winter and others pointed out on Facebook that pulling out of the Earth Day festival would likely not hurt Duke Energy and instead suggested working with the Cerfs to bring in more volunteers and different funding sources in future celebrations.

While the conversation still included an overall anti-Duke sentiment, the energy company’s involvement may have been salvaged by an overarching desire by environmentalists to celebrate Earth Day instead of bashing Duke.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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