The John A. Wilson Building. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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D.C. climate crisis real talk on Monday sprouted thoughts on food, the cost of flooding, and racial disparities. The D.C. Council joint committee hearing on climate resilience planning and the Flood Resilience Amendment Act of 2021 drew public voices to complement the testimony on Dec. 17.

Here are a few of their thoughts on the District’s best chance at combating the effects of flooding and contributors to the climate crisis:

Awareness around racial and economic climate injustices and the funds to back it up

The Flood Resilience Amendment Act of 2021 would allow the D.C. Department of Energy and the Environment to designate certain areas as “flood hazard” sites. New or significantly redeveloped residences in these at-risk areas would then require flood insurance.

But this requirement hits at two points of vulnerability for some of the poorest residents most at risk for flooding in the District, including those who live on floodplains in wards 7 and 8, said Brenda Richardson, an environmental activist and Ward 8 resident. Despite a law requiring home insurance companies to notify homeowners that their insurance doesn’t cover flood-related costs and how to get flood insurance, there might be a lack of flood mitigation awareness among the affected community. There’s also a looming concern around how at-risk residents will pay for the measures. Flood-proofing their homes and securing flood insurance might be financially unattainable for many, Richardson said.    

“The pandemic has imposed financial hardship on many families that are still in the throes of recovery,” she said. “And now they are looking at the possibility of requiring us to elevate our utilities, install backflow devices, installing full flood vents, sealing our foundation and basement walls, improving grading and reduce impervious surfaces?” 

To make the flood insurance requirement affordable to residents, Richardson urged the Council to make funding available for a “floodplain trust” for homeowners most in need. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie suggested he and his colleagues could look to an expired D.C. flood assistance fund program from 2013 for ideas on how flood aid could work with this bill.

Richardson also called for residents to have access to a list with trusted contractors for flood-proofing their homes. She implored city officials to forbid construction of new homes on Poplar Point, an area located on the eastern bank of the Anacostia River. The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development website describes the site as “one of the last great urban waterfront redevelopment opportunities on the East Coast.”

Utility Interconnection of Solar Arrays

For those not super familiar with green energy lingo, solar interconnection is the approval process for a solar power system. The utility company evaluates the possible impacts the solar project might have on the power grid and makes necessary changes.

“The District’s ability to get interconnection policy right may be the primary determining factor as to whether D.C. can achieve our city’s greenhouse gas reduction goals,” Director of Utility and Regulatory Affairs at New Columbia Solar Nicholas Bihun said. 

Echoing government witnesses in the Dec. 17 hearing, Bihun cited reports of pervasive delays and onerous costs in the interconnection process for D.C.’s major energy provider, Pepco, both in larger solar projects and Solar for All residence installments. Interconnection delays reduce savings for clients, harm solar developers, and slow the overall development of green energy in D.C., Bihun explained. 

The solar company executive called for the Public Service Commission and city officials to prevent Pepco from encroaching on the solar market. Doing so would open the door for better cost and energy efficiency in the name of climate resilience goals instead of allowing Pepco to keep the status quo, he claimed.

The Underlying Causes

As environmental advocates testified, deploying more efficient clean energy can only do so much. Likewise, flood mitigation measures can only address the effects, not causes, of the current climate crisis. The primary cause: greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels.  

“So the only way to deal with the climate and health threat of burning gas in our homes is to stop burning gas in our homes and then other buildings that aren’t residences,” said Mark Rodeffer of the D.C. Sierra Club. “This means providing heat using highly efficient heat pumps—but D.C.’s gas utility unfortunately wants to go in the other direction.”

Rodeffer urged the city to invest in widespread initiatives to electrify homes and other buildings, implement energy efficient air-quality measures, and develop a workforce training program for clean-energy jobs. He lauded steps the Council has taken toward addressing climate crisis contributors, like passing the Clean Energy Omnibus Amendment Act of 2018​​ and the Zero Waste Omnibus Amendment Act of 2020, but called for funding and follow-through.

Food systems also play a vital role, and are affected by, the climate crisis in the District, food justice and animal rights advocates testified. One channeled his inner Dr. Seuss in a testimony against the factory farming practices that contribute to carbon emissions and flooding.  

“More pollutions in the air / and the fumes we inhale / but another Trojan horse has snuck into the gate / or climate contributor that we must update,” DC Voters for Animals president Max Broad recited.

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to clarify Nicholas Bihun’s statement.

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