Deborah Peters doesn’t have any photos of her wedding day.
They were ruined when her home in Hampton flooded a few years ago. She can’t recall if it was during a hurricane or a nor’easter; her house floods so often, it’s hard to keep track.
“There have been times when our street was flooded for days,” she said, adding its damaged cars and swept away her hot tub. “We’ve actually boated in and out of the house.”
Peters isn’t alone.
Along the East Coast, Hampton Roads is ground zero for flooding and sea level rise. Many areas, like Olde Towne in Portsmouth or the Hague in Norfolk, routinely battle rising waters, and the problem is only expected to get worse as climate change progresses. Money brought in from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) recently began funding efforts to help — but a state board is, at the behest of Gov. Glenn Youngkin, poised to pull out of the program.
“A lot of localities don’t have the expertise or the staffing to wrap their heads around the scope of this (flooding) problem and how to address it,” said Nate Benforado, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “RGGI funds are letting them hire experts to create plans and execute those plans.”
Benforado was among dozens of RGGI advocates who spoke Thursday at a public hearing in Richmond and urged the State Air Pollution Control Board not to withdraw from the program. Public comment is being accepted online through March 31.
RGGI is a cooperative effort among 12 states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
It’s intended to reduce use of fossil fuels as an energy source and to encourage a shift to renewable energy production by requiring energy producers to buy allowances for each metric ton of carbon they produce. Producers can only buy a limited number, which decreases over time.
The General Assembly passed a resolution to join RGGI in 2020. Other members include Maine, Vermont, Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. New Jersey left the program at one point, but later rejoined.
The program’s primary purpose is to create cleaner air, and emissions in Virginia have seen a 16.8% reduction since joining, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Though Jim Guy, the control board’s chairman, previously said there’s no proof the decline is linked to RGGI.
But the program is about more than clean air in Virginia. The initiative has collected more than $500 million for the commonwealth. Half of the money is earmarked for energy-saving projects for low-income families and the other half for the Community Flood Preparedness Fund.
In the last two years, the fund has awarded millions in grants, including to flood-prone Hampton Roads jurisdictions. Grants include approximately: $1 million to Chesapeake for structural flood walls and stormwater system upgrades; $3 million to Virginia Beach for wetland restoration along the Elizabeth River; $4 million to Hampton for flooding prevention efforts along Lake Hampton and North Armistead Avenue; $5 million to Newport News to develop a master plan on managing climate change; and $24 million to Norfolk for a flood protection barrier system.
“This is just incredibly important funding for a state like Virginia,” Benforado said. “And of course, in Hampton Roads, where they are facing some of the highest sea level rise along the whole East Coast, there is just a massive need for it.”
RGGI provides a consistent and reliable funding stream, which is crucial for multiphase projects, he explained.
“Localities need sustained funding to address these issues; the kind of work that needs to be done, it’s just massive in scale,” he said.
Critics of the initiative say it unfairly passes extra costs to consumers and there are other ways to provide dedicated funding for flood prevention in Virginia.
If the state withdraws from the regional pact, the Youngkin administration doesn’t intend to let flood prevention funding dry up. The governor included $200 million for the Resilient Virginia Revolving Loan Fund in proposed budget amendments this year. Officials have said the loan fund could be used as an alternate source of funding for resiliency efforts across the state.
The state passed a two-year budget last year. But a budget conference committee is currently debating a series of changes to last year’s plan. One conferee recently told The Pilot they plan to meet for negotiations this upcoming week.
“The Administration will continue to work with the General Assembly and stakeholders to provide direct funding and coordination for flood resiliency in a way that is transparent and not a hidden tax on Virginians,” Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter wrote to The Pilot Thursday.
Other opponents of RGGI have shared similar concerns.
Sen. Richard Stuart, a Montross Republican who introduced a bill to withdraw during the recent legislative session, said RGGI won’t work as intended and will only result in energy producers passing along extra costs to customers.
“The minute that your constituents want more electricity — you’re going to raise the cap,” he told a Senate committee. “So, it doesn’t accomplish any conservation benefit.”
Stuart, whose bill was ultimately shot down, further asserted that flooding prevention efforts aren’t effective.
“I know of no way to stop water when it wants to come,” he said.
On Thursday, however, multiple groups pointed to lower emission levels as evidence that RGGI is already working and argued the cause of higher electricity bills is volatile fossil fuel costs or utility codes that favor companies over consumers.
During the roughly two hour hearing, no one advocated to leave RGGI.
Though Hampton Roads faces some of the worst flooding risks, other areas in Virginia said they were benefiting from the flood preparedness fund. Laura Thomas, director of Richmond’s Office of Sustainability, said the city had received $1.2 million.
“This has helped to increase flood protection and improved public safety in some of the underserved neighborhoods in our community,” she said.
In addition to flooding prevention, many of those who spoke at the hearing stressed that clean air helps residents live healthier lives.
Danny Walden, a medical student at Virginia Commonwealth University and member of Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action, said he recently cared for an otherwise healthy young woman in the intensive care unit because of an asthma attack.
“There have been a couple of studies about the health benefits and within the first five years of its implementation, RGGI member states saw 8,000 fewer asthma attacks,” he said, adding its also been linked to a reduction in premature births.
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Members of the State Air Pollution Control Board did not attend the hearing, which was held at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, but will receive a copy of the comments along with the department’s responses.
The package will likely be sent to the board this summer or fall, said Karen Sabasteanski, a policy analyst with the department. If the board then decides to move forward with the withdrawal, it would still need to go though another final round of review and publication in the Virginia Register.
Meanwhile, residents in Hampton Roads will continue to contend with the ramifications of flooding.
Peters, who finally tired of replacing furniture and floorboards, recently had her home raised eight feet off the ground. It wasn’t an easy project, she said. Even with the help of a federal grant it cost about $75,000, and she had to move into the house next door during construction.
But she said something had to be done.
“We have pictures of us literally kayaking into our home,” Peters said. “I’ve told my husband I was starting to think fire might sometimes be better than flood.”
Katie King, email@example.com