Sea-level bill focuses on effect, not cause

Irene and Sandy were unwelcome visitors to coastal Connecticut, but their legacy is a strong consensus by the Connecticut General Assembly on the threat to public infrastructure posed by rising sea levels.

The House voted 129 to 2 to give final passage Thursday to legislation requiring state officials to consider the necessity of mitigating sea-level rise when approving funding for sewage treatment plants. It passed unanimously in the Senate.

The bill grew out of a study initiated by Rep. James Albis, a Democrat of coastal East Haven, after seeing a map showing much of his community underwater during a Category 2 hurricane.

Albis skirted the issue of climate change, focusing almost entirely on what is happening to sea levels in Long Island Sound – not why.

Tidal gauges in New London and Bridgeport show that sea levels in the Sound have risen steadily, meaning that coastal storms now threaten public infrastructure that once seemed immune to flooding, he said. Over 100 years, the data shows increases of 9 inches at New London and 10 inches at Bridgeport.

“Is it man-made? I tried to stay away from that,” Albis said. “It’s not relevant for this debate.”

Albis said the results are clear enough: Flooding and power outages during Irene and Sandy that resulted in millions of gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage flowing into Long Island Sound during the storms.

That was not good enough for two conservative Republican representatives, John Piscopo of Thomaston and Robert C. Sampson of Wolcott. They cast the only no votes on the bill.

“If there is a sea level rise, it’s minimal. It’s really silly to put it in state statutes,” Piscopo said. “If you’re going to build a new treatment plant, you don’t put it on the flood plain. You don’t need laws to tell us that.”

Piscopo is the national chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that has been trying to persuade states to withdraw from efforts to control greenhouse gases.

He said the bill legitimizes the threats of climate change and sea-level rise, which he believes are overblown.

The bill was supported by Daniel C. Esty, the commissioner of energy and environmental protection.

He gave the legislature public-hearing testimony that the state must recognize “the new normal of sea-level rise and more frequent and intense coastal storms.”

“This issue was brought into sharp relief during storms Irene and Sandy, when some coastal sewage treatment plants lost power, resulting in sewage being discharged,” Esty said.

Albis said the bill passed Thursday was among the easier political responses to issues raised by Irene and Sandy and sea-level rise.

A much harder issue is whether the state eventually will take steps to discourage the rebuilding of storm-damaged coastal homes. They are beloved by their owners — and produce significant property taxes for municipalities, Albis said.

“It gives municipalities a perverse reason to build densely along the coast,” he said.