Panel 2: “From Power Lines to Ports: Protecting Critical Infrastructure”

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Mary-Carson Saunders Stiff moderated the second panel on Saturday. This panel discussed critical infrastructure (“CI”). The panel was composed of Mark Slauter (Virginia Department of Emergency Management), David White (Virginia Maritime Association), Speaker Pollard (Christian & Barton, LLC), Heather Wood (Virginia Port authority), and Trip Pollard (Southern Environmental Law Center). Mary-Carson started the panel off by asking the members to introduce themselves, give their definition of CI, and state their greatest concern related to protecting critical infrastructure.


Pollard (Trip) described CI as essential physical facilities (bridges, roads, ports, airports, natural gas lines, etc.) and said his greatest concern is that we are nowhere near ready for the problems we are already dealing with let alone what’s coming. He thinks CI needs increased funding and political and community support.


Wood highlighted the importance of Virginia’s ports not only to Virginia, but to all of the East Coast. To her, CI is comprised of highways, rail, and stormwater infrastructure. “What’s critical to us is continuity of operations,” she noted, continuing on to highlight that Hampton Roads was the only port on the East Coast open within 24 hours of Sandy.


Pollard (Speaker) said that in terms of CI everything is so interconnected that there’s really one infrastructure system. Therefore, it’s hard to choose one as being more critical/important, but if pressed he would say water and wastewater were near the top, because of the related public health issues.


For White, CI is comprised of channels, waterways, terminals, roads, rail, bridges, power, communications, etc. “Ports are only as strong as the weakest link in the infrastructure chain,” he stated and based on this it is hard to say what we need to do next, because we aren’t doing what we need to do now. He listed insufficient maintenance of sea channels as an example of this lack of sufficient action.


Slauter framed CI in the context of basic survival: food, water, and shelter. His largest fear is that a lack of acceptance of the challenges climate change poses on CI means that way too many people are unwilling to accept that we need to deal with the challenges head on.


Based on audience participation and a government created list of CI, it became clear that understandings of CI can vary based on where one lives. However, Slauter noted that while people pretty much always remember to mention access to water and medicine, they often gloss over food. He stressed that we need to make sure that food is remembered in the expanding definition of CI.


Next, Mary-Carson asked the panelists to discuss what is being done, and or planned, to safeguard CI. Pollard (Speaker) replied that on the utility side, it varies greatly. For water, localities are in an ongoing process of requiring utilities to submit a plan as to how they will maintain water supplies into the future. For waste water/stormwater, overflows are being increasingly addressed, especially through enforcement actions by EPA and state officials. For electricity, nuclear has fairly solid plans because of the security risks, but natural gas is just started thinking about changes in climate.


Pollard (Trip) shared that next to nothing has been done in preparing the ground transportation sector. VDOT did a pilot study that resulted in the common sense finding that priorities would change if climate change was considered, however climate and flooding still are not considered. In fact a current bill in the state assembly was originally drafted to limit transportation considerations solely to congestion reduction. However, Pollard (Trip) said that the current version does include economic and broader environmental considerations.


White reiterated his earlier comments that not only are we not properly preparing for the future, but we are not successfully confronting the problems we have today. The increasing number of storm surge events are also affecting sea channels and because of this, the channel into Hampton Roads was closed twice in 2013. This is part of a larger problem and according to White, the Army Corps of Engineers recently reported that the full capacity of US ports is available less than 35 % of the time. This highlights to White the crucial need for increased funding for maintaining the navigability of channels.


Mary-Carson’s final question asked the speakers how they would prioritize confronting CI issues. Pollard (Speaker) said first localities need to decide what their goals are so that they can approach the problem holistically. It is hard to focus on one area at the expense of another, because of how interconnected everything is. For example, you can’t have waste water treatment without power. But he said if you have to start somewhere, it should probably be with getting good data, because without that you can’t make the right decisions about everything else.


Pollard (Trip) agreed that getting good data is an important starting point. He said we also need to stop making the problem worse. We are spending billions making new roads that will become vulnerable. This will not only deplete resources in the future by protecting these roads, but putting the lion’s share of transportation money into highways/car focused projects makes critical events much worse. For an example of this, he pointed to the recent snow disaster in Atlanta.


Wood pointed to the fact that all the things you need in a disaster get to you via a port. According to her, you need to look at the supply chain in order to properly prioritize. Hampton Roads is within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the U.S. and so if an emergency happens in Kansas City, the supplies are probably coming via Hampton Roads. White followed up on this by saying if you want to look at an example of what happens when there is a major disruption to the supply chain, Sandy is pretty indicative. The closure of the NYC area ports nearly choked the rest of the East Coast, because there isn’t much wiggle room in capacity.


The first audience question highlighted the visibility problem CI has in that when infrastructure is working well, the public doesn’t care about it. Therefore, it is hard to communicate to everyday people how important maintaining/improving it is, especially in an era that is constantly calling for smaller government.


The second question asked about the disconnect between maintaining CI at VA ports in the face of climate to allow them to export coal. Wood acknowledged that this is hard, especially because the Hampton Roads port was founded on coal and it is what allowed the port to survive the Great Depression and the 80’s economic downturn. She continued by saying that coal is the livelihood of SW VA and because of that, she isn’t sure we’ll ever get to a discussion of stopping it.


White stated that coal exportation exists because there is a demand for it. He thinks if other countries could meet their energy needs without coal, they probably would. He also noted that 40,000 VA jobs are connected to coal and that VA ports handle WV and KY coal as well. Pollard (Trip) agreed with the sentiment of the question in asking whether we should be spending public dollars to subsidize the maintenance of coal infrastructure. However, he is doubtful that it will be politically viable to move money away from coal anytime soon. In the meantime though, he thinks it is important to move SW VA to other industries.


Based on the final audience question about current bills in the Virginia Assembly, the panelists discussed SJ3. This bill, sponsored by Hampton Roads Senator Mamie Locke, seeks to establish a joint subcommittee to make recommendations about addressing recurrent flooding. Pollard (Speaker) thinks that it has good bipartisan support and that the conference at William & Mary last year was helpful in getting a push for this issue. Pollard (Trip) said another similar bill was consolidated into this one and he thinks it is likely to pass, but cautions that while it is an important first step, it can’t be the be all and end all. Pollard (Skip) is hopeful that once the dialogue is started by SJ3, it will be hard to stop, as the genie will be out of the bottle.


About this Panel:

The purpose of this panel is to generate a discussion that identifies the major infrastructure vulnerabilities facing coastal communities.


  • Emergency Management:  Mark Slauter, Virginia Department of Emergency Management
  • Maritime:   David White, Vice President, Virginia Maritime Association
  • Utilities: Speaker Pollard, Christian & Barton, LLP
  • Port:  Heather Wood, Virginia Port Authority
  • Transportation:  Trip Pollard, SELC
  • Moderator: Mary-Carson Saunders Stiff, Virginia Coastal Policy Clinic

Blog Post By: Toren Elsen

ELPR 2014 - PICTURE 11ELPR 2014 - PICTURE 12ELPR 2014 - PICTURE 13ELPR 2014 - PICTURE 15ELPR 2014 - PICTURE 14

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