When Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel C. Esty sat through his first nomination hearing almost a year ago, he couldn’t have predicted how much time he’d spend on storm response, but it was a prominent topic at his second confirmation hearing.
It’s not typical for one of the governor’s nominees to go before the Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee twice, but because the Department of Environmental Protection merged with the the Department Public Utility Control, Esty was back before the committee Tuesday. After the hearing every member of the committee present voted to confirm Esty again.
The prolonged power outages following two major storms last year came up as committee members questioned Esty about his agency’s new energy responsibilities. He said storm response and the reliability of the state’s electrical system were of tremendous concern to DEEP.
“If you had told me a year ago when we were together, how much of my time would be spent sitting in the Emergency Operations Center in the state armory, trying to address these issues, I would not have believed you,” he said.
Esty expressed support for many of the proposals put forth by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and lawmakers aimed at getting power restored more quickly, including increased use of local micro-grids and more aggressive tree trimming.
He also said that utility companies need to be better prepared for disasters and suggested the state improve the mutual aid contracts used to bring in utility crews from outside the state.
But Esty faced a long line of questioning from Sen. Len Fasano, R- North Haven, over his agency’s response to Tropical Storm Irene’s impact on shoreline towns. Being from a coastal community, many of Fasano’s constituents were impacted by flooding and property damage when the storm hit the state last August.
While Fasano praised Esty personally for taking a hands on approach after the storm, he wasn’t impressed with all of his staff. Some homeowners who took steps to repair seawalls that had been torn down or damaged during the storm, had a hard time determining whether the walls were properly permitted in the first place, he said.
Those property owners were “met with more than just reluctance from the DEEP staff,” he said.
“I think staff should be more open at the boots-on-the-ground level. There is not an easy flow of communication. I think staff plays ‘hide the peanut.’ ‘This isn’t good but I’m not going to tell you what is good,’” he said.
Some residents were told that they should not have made certain repairs after the fact, he said. As a result they were told they had to tear down repairs or face fines or the loss of their properties, Fasano said.
Esty said his department made a commitment to help people with emergency authorizations for permits immediately after the storm. The department continues to provide expedited permits for rebuilding seawalls, he said. He pointed out that during the last quarter of last year, the department moved 90 percent of permits in 60 days or less.
“We have been authorizing permits at record speed to help people get those seawalls that are down reconstructed,” he said.
Esty said the more challenging problem will be addressing homes built on property that was devastated by flooding and beach erosion.
Houses can be “built up,” or elevated on stilts, he said. Structures that were on stilts already fared better during Irene because wave energy dissipated under the buildings, he said. Another, more expensive option is to replace the sand on the beach where the houses are located, Esty said.
However, he said the ideal option is to rebuild the houses back away from the water line. Fasano said for many residents moving their houses back isn’t an option because they are already close to their neighbors’ property.
He said the issue may threaten the rights of property owners in coastal towns. Fasano pointed to a bill that has been raised in the Environment Committee, which creates a legal process to “foster strategic retreat of property ownership” for properties with structures likely to be repeatedly damaged by coastal erosion.
Fasano called the bill dangerous from a constitutional stand point and asked Esty if his department supported the policy.
“I’m a big believer in private property, as you and I have debated on other occasions,” Esty told Fasano. “It’s the core of how environmental protection should be done. But I think in this case there’s some tough balancing to be thought through.”
Esty said that legislation that talks of retreat is “not helpful.”
“But we also have to recognize that there’s growing evidence that the number of people harmed and buildings harmed by natural disasters is rising and part of it is because we’ve allowed people to expand and build more in zones that are at risk,” he said. “I do think there’s trade off here… I think the state does no service by allowing people to put themselves in harms way.”
Fasano said the coastal impact of Irene was worse than any storm since the hurricane of 1938 and warned against using the damage the storm caused as leverage against coastal property owners.
“I just don’t want this to be used as an excuse to say that we need to eradicate the shoreline of property ownership,” he said.